Lawmaker Proposes More Michigan Charter Schools

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A state lawmaker wants Michigan to remove limits on charter schools to put the state in the running for a share of more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Sen. Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit, is introducing legislation that would remove the state's cap on the number of charter schools, which receive state aid and don't charge tuition but operate with more autonomy than traditional public schools.

Lifting limits on charter schools would allow Michigan to compete for a share of the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" grants to be made available by the Obama administration, which wants to increase the number of charter schools, Thomas said during a teleconference Wednesday. Michigan plans to apply for $400 million to $600 million, he said.

Critics contend charter schools drain money and talent from traditional public schools. But Thomas said under his legislation, public schools would still get a share of the state aid they would otherwise lose if a student enrolled in a charter school.

Apart from saying it must be used to improve student achievement, the federal government hasn't specified how states can spend the "Race to the Top" grants. But Thomas said it was important for Michigan to qualify for the money, especially considering the Legislature's vote this week to cut state aid to public schools.

"Anything we can add to the pool is good," he said.

More than 104,000 students are enrolled in approximately 240 charter schools statewide. They operate under charters granted by public universities, local school districts, intermediate school districts or community colleges.

There are 46 charter schools with nearly 21,000 students in Detroit, where enrollment in the public schools has fallen from 104,000 to 93,000 in the past year. Robert Bobb, the Detroit Public Schools' state-appointed emergency financial manager, said in July that he welcomed competition from charters, but the district mounted an aggressive campaign this fall to recruit news students and lure others away from charter and religious schools.

Eliminating the caps would make it easier for 12,000 children now on waiting lists to get into charter schools, Thomas said.

"Michigan families are demanding an alternative (to public schools) ... it's time to acknowledge that charters are part of the Michigan educational fabric," he said.

Thomas said neither the Michigan Education Association nor the American Federation of Teachers, which represents Detroit Public Schools teachers, has responded to his legislation.

But the MEA, the state's largest teachers union, said in a recent newsletter, "There isn't any credible evidence that increasing the number of charter schools will improve student achievement."

Messages seeking comment were left with the MEA and after business hours with the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

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