Schools-of-Choice Law Broadened

But Charter School Expansion Is Stalled

Recent legislative action expands parental choice among traditional public schools while another bill that would do the same for charter public schools is stalled in legislative committee.

A bill signed into law in July by Governor Engler adds significant provisions to the public schools-of-choice program. This program began in 1996 and initially allowed Michigan students- along with the money that pays for their education- to transfer to other public schools in their county if their new school was within their intermediate school district (ISD) and was a participant in the program.

The newly enacted provisions, however, allow education money to follow students to a school district contiguous with their own even if it lies outside the political boundary lines of their ISD. The law also gives parents and schools two additional months to finalize their school-choice decisions and allows districts to accept new students in the second semester. School districts still can refuse to enroll students from neighborhoods outside their ISD boundaries, and schools can limit the number of students they will accept. Participating districts currently number 437.

Another school choice bill is stalled in committee. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Paul DeWeese (R-Williamston), would raise the "cap" on the number of schools universities may charter by 25 each year over the next three years. Currently, the legislatively imposed cap on public universities stands at a total of 150 schools for the 1999-00 school year. The bill would allow for a total of 225 university-chartered schools by the end of the 2001-02 school year. Michigan universities have granted preliminary authorization for 48 new charter schools to be open for the 1999-00 school year, boosting the number of university-chartered schools to 158, eight over the current limit.

Rep. Jason Allen (R-Grand Traverse), chairman of the House Education Committee, cited "insufficient time" for the bill's delay. "It's unfortunate some schools with preliminary approval have to wait on stand-by because of time constraints," Allen said. Allen also stated that he "would like to see the cap on charter schools raised come fall."

But Democrats in the House say time is not the real reason the bill is stalled.

According to Rep. Rose Bogardus (D-Genesee), a member of the House Education Committee, "The Republicans are the ones that put that [bill] off." Says Bogardus, "Apparently, they didn't have the votes for it."

But Bogardus is pleased that the Republican attempt to lift the cap has been temporarily thwarted.

"People have choice right now," she says. "I'm not a big fan of charter schools and everybody knows that. I don't think they're 'real' public schools. I think they're basically private schools that operate with public money."

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, hopes that the legislature will get DeWeese's bill to the governor this fall so the supply of charter schools can meet growing demand.

Inaction by the legislature creates a dilemma for some charter schools that are newly authorized by universities. A few schools that have already hired staff and enrolled students will be forced to wait for legislative action or seek a waiver from the Department of Education before they can open their doors.

Rep. Allen remains encouraged and expects the House to move forward when the next session resumes in September. "Michigan's legislature is committed to providing a venue that will allow for greater school choice," he says.

In the meantime, public school choice advocates have other reasons to celebrate. The Clinton administration recently unveiled its Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999, which would expand public school choice nationally.

The act would reauthorize the national Public Charter Schools Program, which offers incentives for states to increase their number of charter schools and create new competitive grants to states interested in reducing barriers to public school choice.

First Lady Hillary Clinton's recent address to the National Education Association also signaled forward movement for school choice. She called for greater public school choice and credited charter schools with dramatically improving the state of public education.