School Choice & Charters

Mich. Tribe at Center Of Charter School Debate

By Bess Keller — August 06, 2003 7 min read

Once again, a small community college on an American Indian reservation in Michigan appears to be on the winning end of this state’s ongoing debate over charter schools. But the fight is far from over.

Bay Mills Tribal Community College has been targeted by charter school critics because of a quirk in state law that makes it the only institution of higher learning in the state that is currently willing and able to authorize new charter schools.

Losing that loophole would be a rare political setback for the Bay Mills Ojibway Indians, who founded the 680-student college here and who sought to leverage their support for charter schools to gain a powerful ally in former Gov. John Engler.

The state legislature could decide about the loophole and other charter school issues when it returns this month from a recess.

In addition to the two charter schools authorized by the college that are now operating, Bay Mills has granted a charter for a school to open this fall on the reservation, as well as seven others across the state. Under current law, the college could authorize an unlimited number of the largely independent public schools.

The far-flung charters have opened the college to criticism that it can’t oversee the schools effectively. Some also claim that the tribe is interested in using charters to make money and gain favorable political treatment for its business interests.

“They don’t pay any attention to those schools,” charged Alan J. Short, the director of government affairs for the Michigan Education Association. “They are in it to get a few bucks.”

Tribal leaders shrug off suggestions of opportunism and insist that their chartering power represents new opportunities for children, including those of the tribe.

“We’re trying to take our time and do it right,” said Michael C. Parish, the president of Bay Mills College. He hopes to help all of the schools take a special interest in Native American culture.

Tribal leaders say they can accept the curb on their power that is likely if there are revisions to the state’s charter school law.

Critics point out, however, that as long as the loophole exists and new charters can be authorized, they have little leverage to force a debate on revising charter policy.

Reservation School

To understand why the Bay Mills Ojibway Indians began chartering schools, you have to know this, says tribal Chairman L. John Lufkins: The tribe has tried for years to get its own school.

A school is needed to stem the high dropout rate among local middle and high school students and to bring greater sensitivity to Indian children, he said.

Mr. Lufkins added that the tribe is paying more attention to state education policy, in part because it needs to groom tribal members for a host of business and social services now offered by the tribe. The businesses include the Wild Bluff golf course just down the road from the tribe’s two casinos and its hotel.

Wearing a white golf shirt bearing the logo of that 5-year-old enterprise, Mr. Lufkins explains that the tribe wants control over its children’s education to ensure that they can learn free from prejudice and feelings of inferiority. “I’m hoping with the charter school here that all of those old fears [about school] will fade,” he said.

For another explanation, some point to the way the tribe’s political interests and those of Mr. Engler, a Republican who retired from the governorship this past January, intertwined.

Michigan’s 1993 charter school law gave state universities the authority to approve such schools statewide. And, because Bay Mills’ service area is the entire state, it alone among community colleges also has that power, said Richard D. McLellan, who helped write the law as an adviser to Mr. Engler. Mr. McLellan, who later became the tribe’s legal adviser in the state capital, is a political ally of Mr. Engler’s, having run his transition team in 1990.

Still, there was a gray area about whether a federally chartered school, such as Bay Mills, could charter a precollegiate public school, Mr. McLellan said.

In 2000, GOP lawmakers successfully pushed an amendment that clarified the college’s authority to authorize charter schools.

There was no real pressure on [Bay Mills College] until the cap on university-authorized charters was reached the previous year, Mr. McLellan explained. And by that time, tribal leaders say, they wanted a charter law that would help them open a school on the reservation.

It was around then as well that Gov. Engler talked to the then-tribal chairman about the possibility of chartering schools, Mr. McLellan recalled.

Meanwhile, the Engler administration had been dealing with the Indians on two other fronts.

The Bay Mills tribe was busy opening its second casino and by 1998 proposing a third, perhaps in a more lucrative location downstate. It was also embroiled in a land-claim case against the state dating from the 19th century.

The land claim was settled in 2002 after the tribe accepted a parcel in Port Huron in exchange for the disputed acreage near its reservation. The governor also agreed to let the Bay Mills Indians open a casino on the Port Huron land. That plan has yet to win the required federal approval.

Mr. Short of the Michigan Education Association contends that the land settlement and the tribe’s entry into charter schools were not coincidental. “It’s all tied together,” he argued recently. “There was a nice trade there. The tribe is after more casinos.”

In addition, Tom Shields, Mr. Engler’s pollster and the head of a political-consulting and public relations firm in Lansing that represents the tribe, introduced tribal leaders to another of his clients, Mosaica Education Inc., a charter school management group in San Rafael, Calif.

Puzzling Move

When the college and its advisers granted its first two charters to Mosaica in 2001, outsiders were puzzled because they could find no connection between the state’s Indians and the schools, which were hundreds of miles from the college. Tribal leaders explained that they wanted to be sure their chartering right was secure before approaching the potentially trickier case of a charter school on a reservation.

The connections with Mosaica and charter school proponents also gave the tribe natural allies in other political fights.

But the protests about Bay Mills’ 2001 decision to open a pair of charter schools far from the reservation was only a precursor to the debate that followed.

This past winter, after the college announced it would approve up to a dozen charters, state schools chief Thomas W. Watkins responded dramatically. When the routine paperwork for seven of the proposed schools arrived on his desk, he let it languish.

He argued that the schools needed more accountability, and that his department did not have the resources even to ensure oversight of the charter authorizers.

Mr. Watkins said that whatever the letter of the law, the majority of state lawmakers had never intended for Bay Mills College to have the same chartering authority as Michigan universities.

“I don’t think anybody can say with a straight face ... that a small community college run by Native Americans could create any school anywhere in the state,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Watkins backed off his action after talks with state leaders.

The next steps now lie with the legislature, which returns in mid-August from a summer recess, to face a pair of charter bills now in a conference committee.

For her part, first-year Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, has indicated she would veto any bill that would significantly expand the number of charter schools without demanding substantial increases in accountability.

Preparing for Fall

As the debate swirls, Bay Mills continues to stake its ground in the state’s charter school territory.

The community college recently hired Patrick M. Shannon, a former county prosecutor and public school administrator, to direct and develop its chartering operation.

Of the eight new schools, three will be managed by Mosaica, including the Bay Mills Ojibway School. Four will be run by as many other educational management organizations, including one that has been in trouble with the states of Texas and Georgia.

The ventures are sure to be closely watched.

Critics fret that an institution the size of Bay Mills, remote from most of the schools it charters, will have a hard time adequately evaluating and supporting the work of those schools.

Others are worried that, thanks to the college, more schools will be chartered under a law that gives too much power to the for-profit management organizations that dominate the operation of Michigan charter schools.

For example, David N. Plank, a professor of education at Michigan State University who studies Michigan charter schools, said that a management company could recruit the required board for a school, which then is weak in making demands on the company.

If that company owns the school building, as is common in Michigan, “the company has all of the leverage,” Mr. Plank said.

“Choice is a good thing,” he said. “The problem with the law in Michigan is that the lines of accountability are not well-specified.”

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