DEGROW: Michigan Governor Takes Aim At Low-Income Students In Charter Schools

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Ben DeGrow Mackinac Center
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Our political age has accustomed us to enduring an unhealthy share of bombast and cynicism from Washington, but sometimes it reaches too close to home. Many Michigan families can attest to this, as their governor has held back funds meant for students in certain schools, in an attempt to score a budget victory.

On Sept. 30, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her executive red pen to deny Michigan’s public charter school students the funding increase approved for all public school students. It was far from the only item to fall victim to her line-item veto, as she seeks to force the legislature back into budget negotiations. Her goal in vetoing select spending appears to be getting an unpopular gas tax hike that the Republican-majority legislature has not embraced.

Selectively holding back extra education dollars has effectively made charter students pawns in a Lansing political dispute over relatively small differences in key areas voters care about. The legislature passed a record school aid budget in late September, albeit with 1 percent less than the nearly $14 billion in state spending requested by the governor. Responding to her vetoes, legislators have reintroduced bills to give Whitmer a second chance to resume a fair funding policy — one that doesn’t distinguish between students who attend district schools and those who attend public charter schools.

Though some middle-class rural or suburban students benefit from charter schools, most charter schools have taken root in economically disadvantaged areas. Low-income families have sought refuge from their district-assigned schools that haven’t delivered what their children need to succeed. In places like Detroit and Flint, more students attend a charter than a local district school. Charter students are more likely to be low-income, black or nonnative English speakers than their district school peers.

Adding to the sting of the governor’s selective denial of funding for some students is its brazen inconsistency with her own stated goals. Whitmer introduced her budget to lawmakers in March, noting that “it costs more to educate kids in poverty, or with additional assistance needs.” For months, she and her allies touted a school aid budget that purposefully dedicated larger funding increases to districts with many at-risk students.

Yet the governor showed no qualms about withholding funds from less privileged students whose families have exercised a choice. As is true in many states, the average charter school in Michigan already takes in significantly less money per student than the average school district. That’s mainly because Michigan charters don’t collect any dollars from local property taxes.

Projections show that the governor’s veto of the funding increase, in addition to other smaller vetoes, will result in budget cuts for many Michigan charters. Included among them is Flint’s Northridge Academy, a school that continues to produce strong academic gains year after year with a 100 percent low-income student body. Even more deeply threatened is Lighthouse Academy, a charter program focused on helping students with a record of misbehavior.

The best available research shows several months of tangible learning gains for students in Michigan charter schools. On the gold-standard NAEP test, the state’s charter students have closed the gap in 4th grade reading with their relatively more advantaged district counterparts. And charter parents express high levels of satisfaction with the choices they have made.

Whitmer’s veto follows a movement within the Democratic Party away from the support presidents Clinton and Obama gave to charter schools. The leading candidates are trying to curry the favor of national teacher unions, but most are carefully avoiding strong public pronouncements.

At a recent debate, however, Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was more direct. He called for a moratorium on new charter schools and a ban on those that partner with for-profit management companies. Such short-sighted pandering would lock students out of some Michigan schools that have earned National Blue Ribbon recognition for high performance or have soared above expectations in helping their mostly at-risk student achieve.

A lesser-known candidate offered a more charitable and reasonable take. “I am pro-good school,” Andrew Yang said. According to a recent national survey, that puts him more in line with the views of Democratic primary voters.

Whitmer could similarly satisfy a largely Democratic constituency by relenting from her ill-considered veto. All sides should be able to agree that students at charter schools and district schools are of equal value.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.