Colleges: ‘Wait and see’ on Detroit charter schools

Declining enrollment could open door for more public academies

Further enrollment decline could open the door for more charter public schools within the Detroit Public Schools boundaries, but would there be takers?

Two community colleges — Bay Mills Community College in the Upper Peninsula and Wayne County Community College — would gain the ability to authorize public school academies in Detroit if the district loses its unique "first class" status under Michigan law. Neither currently plans to do so, though neither is ruling it out.

First class is defined as a district with 100,000 or more students. State law protects such districts — Detroit Public Schools is the only one — from certain public charter school operations.

If Detroit’s enrollment continues its downward trend, that protection and several other provisions regarding first class districts would no longer apply, although a state legislator has introduced a bill that would lower the first class threshold to 75,000 students. As of fall 2007, the student count in Detroit stood at about 105,000, down from about 150,000 in 2003.

Bay Mills, a tribally controlled community college in the Upper Peninsula, has authorized two new charter schools to open this fall, one in Dearborn Heights and one in Benton Harbor, but is not currently accepting applications for more, according to Patrick Shannon, director of the college’s charter schools office.

"We want to get these done first," he said, referring to The Dream Academy in Benton Harbor, a college preparatory high school, and Vista Meadows, a school for fourth- through 12th grade students operated by the nonprofit Vista Maria organization in Dearborn Heights. "Right now we want to make sure all our schools are doing well."

Bay Mills oversees 37 public school academies across the state, including more than 20 in southeast Michigan.

Detroit fits the Bay Mills mission of serving students who are urban, minority and poor, Shannon said, and the college would not refuse to consider a request for a new Detroit charter school, but "we certainly aren’t making it a priority," he said. "We are never going to be a charter mill. If there will be growth, it will be slow and cautious."

Wayne County Community College would need more information before considering becoming a charter school authorizer, said Dr. Curtis L. Ivery, chancellor. The college already has been approached on the issue, but does not have a program in place for authorization or oversight of public school academies.

"Our first objective is to serve those students currently enrolled in higher education," Ivery told Michigan Education Report. "It would be a while before we would be ready for anything, that’s for sure.

"We don’t want to be a force that would somehow compromise the K-12 system," he said, but "if it means we can create a better opportunity for all our constituencies, we’d have to look at that."

At the Wayne Regional Educational Services Agency, the intermediate district encompassing Detroit Public Schools, the board of education has lifted a self-imposed moratorium on authorizing charter schools but has no current plans to establish new ones, according to Superintendent Christopher Wigent. Like community colleges, intermediate school districts in Michigan are allowed to authorize public school academies within their own district.

"We had a long talk at the board level. What we are saying is, while we don’t anticipate being the chartering agency, we want to keep those options open," Wigent said. Wayne RESA currently authorizes six public school academies in Wayne County, but put a moratorium on granting new charters in 2001 due to concerns about the agency’s capacity to organize a larger program, Wigent said.

The Wayne RESA public school academy office continues to receive 25 to 35 requests a year from groups interested in opening charter schools, according to Dr. Blandina Rose, the Wayne RESA public school academies manager.

Approving future requests would depend on the individual application and also on how the proposed school would affect existing schools in the county, including Detroit Public Schools, Rose and Wigent said.

"That’s how we have to look at it as a service agency for local districts," Wigent said

Public state universities can authorize public school academies anywhere in Michigan, including Detroit, but are limited by state law to a combined total of 150 charters. That ceiling was reached in 1999. Since then, new university-authorized schools generally open only when existing charter schools close.

There are 47 public school academies — enrolling 29,500 students — within the Detroit Public Schools boundaries, according to the Michigan Department of Education’s 2007 annual report on charter schools. That list includes nine academies authorized by DPS itself.

"It would be a tremendous opportunity for children and parents in the city of Detroit if we had the opportunity to expand choice," said Gary Naeyaert, vice president of public relations and legislative affairs for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Nearly 11,000 children are on waiting lists to enroll in charter schools statewide, he said, with "a good number" of them in Detroit.

While there are "some very fine schools in DPS, too many students are not being well served by traditional public schools. Those students are begging for options," he said.

The charter school issue and others would become moot if a legislator’s proposal to redefine first class districts is adopted by state lawmakers.

House Bill 5765, introduced by state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott, D-Detroit, would define a first class district as one with student enrollment of at least 75,000. The bill is now in the House education committee.

Cook Scott said she introduced the bill after Detroit community members approached her with concerns about the district’s population loss. She declined to elaborate on who approached her, but said it was not school district leaders.

Asked if the concern related to charter schools, she said, "That’s probably in the back of their mind, but no one has specifically said that."

Detroit Public Schools is studying the implications of losing first class status, according to Steve Wasko, the district’s executive director of public relations.

‘I’m not sure we know the complete list," he said. "We are attempting to gain a fuller understanding."

Naeyaert said he expects a "fairly spirited debate in the Legislature" over the bill.

"That’s a vigorous public discussion that the charter school community intends to participate in," he said.

In addition to the charter school issue, there are a dozen other provisions in state law relating to first class school districts. One provision allows Detroit Public Schools to recoup partial state aid from other districts or from public school academies for transfer students. Detroit may request payment from another district if at least 25 students who were enrolled in that district on count day, but who are assigned to DPS, transfer to Detroit after count day. The other districts can offset part of the bill by demonstrating that Detroit students transferred to their district after count day.

Detroit has received approximately $1.5 million under this system for transfer students dating to 2001, and could receive more in the future, since billing has lagged behind actual transfers.

Other public school districts may also request payment for pupil transfers, but rarely do so. Aside from Detroit, each district is limited to billing three other districts and only in cases involving a specific number of students.

Other provisions in state law relating to a first class district include:

  • The school board consists of four members elected at large and seven members elected by voting districts. In all other Michigan conventional public school districts, all school board members are elected at large.

  • The district may borrow money to pay awards in condemnation procedures, with the consent of the legislative body of the city.

  • The district may use the proceeds from bond sales to pay for remodeling existing buildings.

  • Urban high school academies may not operate outside the boundaries of a first class district. Legislation adopted in 2003 gave public state universities the ability to authorize up to 15 urban high school academies in Detroit.

  • Intermediate districts and first class districts only were eligible for $4 million in grant funding awarded in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 to establish middle college programs focused on health professions.

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s quarterly education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.