By Kacy Martin
Call for a Moratorium on New Charters
In an address to the Michigan Legislature on Thursday, March 5th, Michigan State Superintendent Mike Flanagan called for a moratorium on new charters schools in Michigan, saying, “There’s enough (charters) now to give appropriate choice to parents.” Amidst an ongoing debate about the role of charters in the state, Flanagan expressed a belief that, “a moratorium on charter school creation would help stabilize traditional public schools – especially ones in high-poverty areas.” Educators and policymakers have long noted the problems associated with charters competing with neighborhood schools for funding, as well as their sometimes questionable transparency practices. Similarly, confusion over authorizer accountability, as noted in previous Green & Write blogs, has been a source of uneasiness. Given this controversy, it appears that Supt. Flanagan is responding to the concerns of his constituents.
We got the Message, But . . .
Superintendent Flanagan’s remarks before the Legislature last week came as a surprise to charter authorizers given the State Superintendent’s history of endorsing them as assets to the state’s educational portfolio. Likewise, Flanagan has shown approval of charters since the speech. In a memo sent to Public School Academy Authorizers on March 9th, Flanagan backpedaled on the statement he’d made days earlier: “As you know, I am a long-time supporter of Public School Academies . . . I have worked, and continue to work for improved educational opportunities for all students. I look forward to continuing that focus in the coming months.”
Speculation about Flanagan’s shifting position has pointed out that his opinion appears to sway depending on the context. Rob Kimball, Deputy Director of Charter Schools at Grand Valley State University, is critical of Flanagan’s apparent reasoning for limiting charter school growth: “If Supt. Flanagan is concerned about choice, I assume he would also apply his logic to traditional district choice programs. He didn’t propose moratorium on traditional district choice, so perhaps he’s more interested in playing in politics than incentivizing performance for all students regardless of governance model.” Whether the superintendent is reacting to political context or truly voicing his mind in his final months in office remains to be seen.
A Numbers Game
Flanagan’s remarks have inflamed an already heated issue. While some stakeholders appeal to emotion, others look at the numbers involved in the school choice debate.
In an official response to the proposed moratorium, Buddy Moorehouse from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies voiced strong dissent, appealing to readers’ hearts: “I would ask anyone proposing a moratorium on charter schools to talk to a parent whose child is stuck in a failing school. I would tell them to look those parents in the eyes, to tell them it’s too bad their children aren’t learning . . . I would ask them to tell those parents directly, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got enough options now.’”
State Representative Sarah Roberts of St. Clair Shores has a vastly different take on the issue. Roberts advocates for the regulation of charters, calling for, “a much broader, bigger picture of how we deal with this.” Encouraging fellow lawmakers to consider the numbers, Rep. Roberts pointed out that enrollment in Michigan has steadily declined throughout the past decade, “But while there are fewer students to go around, more schools are opening. Our school districts are forced into this situation where they’re just competing for the dollars just to keep their buildings open.”
Seeing the Larger Picture
The confusion over the State Superintendent’s position on charter school growth is ultimately a reminder of the complexity and ambiguity of the charter issue in Michigan. Flanagan’s final remarks suggested that the legislature must address the needs of high-poverty students and the schools that are spiraling into financial disaster, noting that 56 school districts are now operating with a deficit. “Many,” Flanagan said, “are forced to cut their programs, which is then this vicious cycle. These are the kids that need the most help.”
At the heart of the charter debate is the question of equity; while many students benefit from the array of schools available to them, those without access to transportation or information about school options are unable to take advantage of the choice touted by its proponents. As more mobile students leave neighborhood schools, funding follows them, leaving struggling schools worse off. Whether or not a moratorium on new charters would be an effective approach to repairing Michigan’s schools, it seems that the root of the issue, which has been largely glossed over until recently, is the systemic poverty in which many Michigan schools operate.
Kacy Martin is a doctoral student in Educational Policy at Michigan State University. Her work focuses on social network analysis and school choice in urban contexts, examining the ways that parents leverage resources to make decisions about the schools their children attend.
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