School Choice & Charters

College’s Chartering of Schools Upsets Cap in Michigan

By Bess Keller — March 14, 2001 3 min read
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In the politically charged atmosphere of the Michigan charter school movement, a tiny college run by American Indian tribes is defending its decision to authorize two of the independent public schools.

The move took some people by surprise because Gov. John Engler’s high-profile effort to lift an existing cap on the total number of schools that can be chartered by Michigan universities has stalled through two legislative sessions, and the other routes to charters have largely been blocked.

But in January, Bay Mills Community College in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula seemed to break the deadlock by chartering two schools to be run by New York City- based Mosaica Education Co. Neither school when it opens next fall—one near Bay City, Mich., and the other in Pontiac—would be near the college. Because of legislation that in effect singles out Bay Mills, there appear to be no legal limits on how many more schools the college could charter.

“We are making it perfectly clear we are listed in the [charter school] law,” said college President Martha McLeod. “We have chartered two schools, which is far less than others, and [the schools’] educational philosophy is congruent with that of the tribal council.”

Ms. McLeod added that the college would be cautious in authorizing more charters. “We are going to see how this goes,” she said.

The schools will be open to students of any background and will have no special curriculum geared to American Indians.

Michigan has three chartering authorities besides universities: colleges, local school districts, and regional educational service districts. All three have used their authority sparingly, and with the exception of Bay Mills, all are restricted to granting charters within their small districts. Bay Mills, the state’s only tribal college, appears to have no special district because its mission is to serve Native Americans throughout Michigan.

Current Limit Reached

Michigan’s 7-year-old charter school law explicitly allows a federally financed, tribally controlled college to act as a chartering authority. An amendment to the law passed last June by the Republican- controlled legislature set out some conditions such a college must meet to have standing as a state body.

The number of university-chartered schools has reached the maximum of 150 permitted under state law, a situation that Mr. Engler, a Republican, has often decried.

Several Michigan education groups are mulling whether to join in a legal action to try to block the two new charters. “We are certainly going to take a look at the legal foundation” of the college’s action, said Raymond S. Telman, the executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, which represents urban districts in the state.

Robert G. Harris, who oversees charter school issues for the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said Bay Mills Community College’s decision to grant the charters was disturbing. “You have private, for-profit companies making decisions about where they want to have a school, not based on the community’s needs, but on where they can make money,” he contended.

Sharon L. Gire, a member of the state school board, found fault with the college’s decision to give oversight of the schools to Ferris State University, which has chartered several schools. The college and the university would share the 3 percent of charter school funding set aside for oversight.

“It violates the spirit of the law,” Ms. Gire, a Democrat and former state legislator, argued. “A community college that has some specific concerns about a population of students knows best how to address these issues,” she said.

Ms. Gire said she would prefer that the number of charter schools not grow until the law does more to improve oversight and make such schools more accountable, especially given that some three- fourths of Michigan’s charter schools are run for profit.

But Michael David Warren Jr., a Republican on the state board, disagreed. “There are kids trapped in failing schools,” he said. “It’s clearly a positive that there are two more schools that are additional options for kids and parents.”

The two new charter schools are expected to open in time for the 2001-02 school year. Each plans to serve about 450 pupils in kindergarten through 5th grade, with the potential to add levels through grade 12.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as College’s Chartering of Schools Upsets Cap in Michigan

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