As Michigan legislative leaders cook up a revised school aid budget for the session scheduled to resume this week, they are trying to keep a long-simmering dispute over charter schools from poisoning the deal.
The argument turns on whether the state’s only American Indian community college should be allowed to grant charters to schools anywhere in the state. Such authority, in effect, lifts a statewide cap on the number of charters. The cap is dear to some legislators and frustrating to Republican Gov. John Engler, who strongly favors the independent public schools.
Leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature say that a compromise on the issue could be the key to avoiding the unpopular cuts in state education funding announced by Mr. Engler this summer after the legislature failed to pass an alternative spending plan. To match dwindling revenues earmarked for education, the cuts would reduce the $6,500 per-pupil allotment state officials promised to schools by $73 per student for the current school year.
“There has to be some candy in [the deal] for the governor,” said Rep. Ron Jelinek, a Republican and the chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with education spending. “Everybody is going to have to swallow hard on some little piece.”
Budget cuts and chartering authority have been intertwined since July when the House approved a bill that combines a revised budget for the current school year with a provision curtailing the community college’s chartering power. The Senate also approved funding adjustments, but the two bodies could not agree, in part, because of the chartering issue.
The legislature has until Oct. 1, the start of Michigan’s fiscal year, to give the governor a pared-down education budget he finds acceptable—or live with the cuts announced in July.
With Michigan’s economy slowing, state leaders are obliged to trim spending. Out of the coming fiscal year’s portion of the $88 billion, three-year budget for precollegiate education aid passed last year, they must find $175 million in cuts.
Educators have rallied to the defense of the full budget, but many have said that if cuts have to come, they would prefer ones that do not touch general state school aid, which the governor has targeted. “Nobody likes the cuts, but there are some that are less intrusive than others,’' said Allan J. Short, the director of government affairs for the 150,000-member Michigan Education Association.
Where to Cut?
While Mr. Short said it would be better to cut money earmarked for particular programs, especially new ones, others have protested just such a move. A coalition of educators, law-enforcement officers, and civic leaders has asked lawmakers to preserve education funds, citing particularly parent-education, early-childhood, and early-reading efforts that are just getting under way.
Legislative leaders said last week that the deal being struck spares some of the programs, though details were to be under wraps until this week. “We want to save those reading, parenting, and interagency [early-childhood] programs,” said Rep. Jelinek. “We may have to rely on our rainy-day fund.”
Further, the lawmaker said, the plan could turn on the charter school issue.
The number of university-chartered schools has hit the maximum of 150 permitted under state law, a cap Gov. Engler has unsuccessfully sought to lift for three legislative sessions. He has been thwarted not only by Democrats but also by a small number of Republicans who do not favor charter schools, such as Mr. Jelinek.
The decision early in the year by Bay Mills Community College in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to grant charters to two schools to be run by Mosaica Education Co., a for-profit company based in New York City, suggested a way around the cap. Neither of the schools—which have opened this month near Bay City and in Pontiac—is near the college, which exists to serve American Indians statewide.
Other community colleges, as well as local school districts and regional education service districts, are limited to granting charters in their own, much smaller areas. In any case, few have done so. Most charters in the state have been granted by universities, which operate statewide.
Some legislators, especially in the House, have been willing to delay a new education budget until Bay Mills is prevented from granting any more charters. Many of them argue that the schools are not adequately accountable to the public and need a better track record if more are to be created.
But other lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, do not want to curtail Bay Mills’ power because it means more choices for children.
Gov. Engler predicted early this month, in remarks to an annual gathering of Michigan educators, that legislators would not be able to agree on a budget revision. Legislators disagree, though they acknowledge the problems caused by trying to work out the debate over charter schools.
“That’s really complicated things,” said Rep. Wayne Kuipers, the Republican who chairs the House education committee and is a charter schools advocate. “But,” he added, “I’m confident we’ll work it through.”