Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Summary of House Hearing on November 29, 2011

Subject: Charter School Cap
House Republicans yesterday shuffled committee assignments in the wake of potential opposition on the House Education Committee to SB618, which would eliminate the cap on charter schools.  Removed from the committee was Holly Hughes, reportedly a no vote on the charter bill, and replaced by Lisa Posthumus Lyons, who is presumably a yes vote.  It would be good if those of you who are represented by Lyons to give her a call or send an email letting her know you oppose the bill.  Former Committee Chair Paul Scott was replaced by Rep. Jon Bumstead of Newaygo
Also yesterday, the committee introduced a substitute bill for SB618 that ostensibly takes care of some of the objections we've expressed to SB618.  It retains the language restricting community college charters to their service area, retains the 3 percent administration fee for charter oversight, adds some likely ineffective language to address the quality issue, and requires additional transparency on the part of charter schools.  While it retains the tax exempt status for charters, there are those who contend that will ultimately be removed, although the change in committee membership makes that effort more difficult. 
Originally, testimony was to be limted to yesterday's hearing and a vote was to be taken this morning.  It's unclear if that schedule remains intact, or if last night's highly localized snowstorm will affect committee hearings.  Below is the story from Gongwer.
Committee Shakeup As Charter School Vote Looms
As the House Education committee nears a vote on the charter school expansion bill, a major reshuffling of the committee membership has improved its chances of approval.

Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker Jase Bolger's office announced that Rep. Holly Hughes (R White River Township) had been replaced by Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto). Ms. Hughes has been noncommittal on the bill, which would end the charter school cap. Ms. Hughes did not respond to a message seeking comment.  "People can believe whatever they want, but we needed to make a multitude of changes for a multitude of reasons," Mr. Bolger's spokesperson Ari Adler said. "Once you start making changes to committee assignments, you end up with a domino effect."

Rep. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) was added to the committee to replace recalled Rep. Paul Scott.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move was not a punitive one against Ms. Hughes, but rather designed to protect her politically. Had Ms. Hughes, who represents a politically competitive district that previously was held by a Democrat, voted for the bill, the Michigan Education Association might have heavily targeted her for defeat in 2012. If Ms. Hughes had voted no, she might have lost support from key Republican constituencies and drawn a Republican primary challenge.

Several sources noted that had Mr. Bolger wanted to stack the deck to overwhelmingly report the bill, he could have replaced other members on the committee like Rep. Thomas Hooker (R-Byron Center) and Rep. Ken Yonker (R-Caledonia), who have wavered on charter school expansion, with sure yes votes.   Mr. Adler said many members were willing to work with Mr. Bolger to take on different assignments, either temporarily or permanently as needed, to help with the committee workload. Mr. Bolger announced several committee assignment changes Tuesday to replace the spots Mr. Scott had held, one of which went to Ms. Hughes on Health Policy.  "It's that kind of caucus cohesion that makes the House Republicans such a powerful force for reform," he said.

Word is House
Speaker Jase Bolgerreplaced Rep. Holly Hugheson the Education Committee to protect her from the politically difficult vote.
Gongwer News Service first reported that some House Republicans were having doubts on ending the cap on how many university-authorized charter schools can exist (See Gongwer Michigan Report, October 26, 2011). At the time, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies sent out an alert to its supporters asking them to urge a handful of House Republicans, including Ms. Hughes, to back the bill. Ms. Hughes declined to say where she stood on the issue, but several sources following the issue said she was a solid no.

During three hours of testimony Tuesday, the two sides of the charter school debate made many of their same arguments, but this time in front of Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills), the new interim chair of the House Education Committee, following the recall of Mr. Scott.  Several in the packed crowd bristled at Mr. McMillin's way of questioning those testifying, and he also had words with Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield Township) who didn't appreciate his answering the question she was asking a charter school advocate.

Following testimony from staff members at the Holly Academy, Ms. Brown asked if they still supported the bill, knowing that SB 618* caps the number of Schools of Excellence, of which Holly Academy is one.

Mr. McMillin interjected and said there will still be excellent schools, because competition and choice will make sure of that, and those that not doing well won't succeed.

"Mr. Chairman, I'm asking them the question if you don't mind," Ms. Brown said.  Mr. McMillin shot back, saying he was the chair, and asked her if this is how she was going to ask questions.

At the start of the hearing, the panel heard from Fern Katz, vice president of the Southfield Public Schools Board of Education. She opposed the bill for several reasons, including, she said, because it hurts public schools when students leave charters following the Friday count day that determines their annual funding. When those students come in, the school is not given the necessary funding from the state, she said.  Later, Melanie Laber, principal at FlexTech.High school in Brighton, testified about the success of their new charter school. She said they face the same funding issues as public schools when new students arrive later in the year.
Mr. McMillin said if students arrived later this school year, she would receive 10 percent of the foundation allowance for those students. She said they were fine with that.

"And you're not whining about the idea that you're only going to get 10 percent, I mean it's the kids we're focused on, right?" McMillin said, drawing several jeers from the audience.

Under the bill, the 150-school threshold would be eliminated, it would allow two or more authorizers to issue a charter school contract and it requires demonstrated academic achievement in educational goals for all student grade levels.

It also removes a requirement that labor agreements of a resident school district carry into the new charter school and requires 5 percent, instead of 15 percent, of school district electors to initiate a ballot petition to issue a new charter school.  The bill passed a divided Senate in October.

Two of Ms. Laber's students testified about how much they enjoyed their charter school experience. One was freshman Amelia Moorehouse, who is a competitive gymnast and spends most of her day practicing and attending meets around the Midwest. She attends the school two days a week, and communicates with her teachers daily, and takes online classes.

"We do high school differently," Ms. Laber said.

She said when they opened this year they began with about 25 students and now have about 160, with more coming every week.  Ms. Brown said it was great the school opened this year. It was one of 19 charter schools that to open this year.  "So there's a not a problem, because you opened a charter school," she said.

Ms. Laber said they have about 25 students to interview before the end of the year who would like to attend, prompting Ms. Brown to ask if they turn students away.  "If we don't think they are going to be successful, we talk to them about other options," Ms. Laber said.

Rep. Deb Shaughnessy (R-Charlotte) said if charters are rejecting students because they are full, then lifting the cap would eliminate that problem, she said.

Eugene Cain, chief school administrator at the El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Public School Academy in Lansing talked about the success they have had. He noted they take all students, have their own buses and have a special education program.  He said he supports the bill because he believes in choice.  "People of means have always had choice, I would rather see that extended," he said.

Rep. Rudy Hobbs (D-Lathrup Village) asked how this bill to allow more charter schools would do anything to replicate the success Mr. Cain has had at his school.  Mr. Cain said he hadn't read the entirety of the bill and Mr. Hobbs urged him to do so.

A group of parents from the Grand  Rapids area spoke in opposition to the bill, saying they feared it would take away the students with the means, and would leave the most vulnerable in the public schools.    They said they were not opposed to choice, but that this bill would allow for any charters to open, not just good charter schools.

The Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Townships Association also testified in opposition to a portion of the bill that allows for a property tax exemption to for-profit entities that lease their buildings to charter schools. The precedent that would set, as well as the financial loss due to this subsidy, concerned them, officials from the MML and MTA said.

The Department of Education indicated that if the bill became law and there was no limit on the number of charter schools, that the department would need additional staff member to handle all the new applications.

Several opponents of the bill pointed out that several charter schools have been shut down due to poor performance.   Mr. McMillin said there are quality issues with traditional public schools as well and none have ever been shut down.  "We are going to make sure that is dealt with," he said.

He said he plans to form a subcommittee to look into quality issues of both types of schools.  "I think it would be unfair just to address charters," Mr. McMillin said.

Another hearing on the bill is set for Wednesday morning when a vote is expected