By Dave Murray
The Grand Rapids Press
September 30, 2011
LANSING – Companies managing charter schools would no longer pay property taxes as part of reforms aimed at luring successful out-of-state operators to Michigan.
The package is headed to the state Senate, with a vote expected in the next two weeks. It includes lifting a cap on university-approved charter schools and allowing all public schools to hire companies to provide teachers.
Supporters say the bills are intended to spark more competition for struggling schools, but critics charge competition alone won’t help them do better.
“They’ve taken a free-market approach to education and providing parents with more and more choices and seeing if anything sticks,” said Donald Wotruba, deputy director for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
“But when you have a struggling business, you either shut it down or use resources to fix it. They’re doing neither to the low-performing schools.”
The reforms passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday on a party line vote.
Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov said it’s fair to waive property taxes for charter schools because they can’t collect taxes for new buildings or improvements, as districts do, He said tax payments for charters mean taking money from the classroom.
“I look at this as a tax abatement,” said Pavlov, R-St. Chair Township. “Governments offer tax abatements to industries all the time, so why not for education?”
The savings to schools or their landlords would be considerable. Property taxes for National Heritage Academy’s Knapp Charter Academy in Grand Rapids Township were $90,800 in 2010. The company manages 44 schools in Michigan.
Pavlov also said allowing charter schools and traditional districts to contract with outsiders to provide teachers is intended to allow districts flexibility and cost saving, not break unions, as critics contend.
Districts pay an amount equal to 24 percent of each employee’s salary into the state retirement fund, but do not have to pay into the system for contracted employees.
Wotruba said the school board association opposes privatizing teachers, adding that districts might save money but could lose control.
“I know our schools outsource transportation and janitorial services, and those people have some contact with kids,” he said. “But that’s a lot different than privatizing your teachers.”
Lobbyists expect the bills to clear the Senate, but they could meet resistance in the House, Wotruba said. He believes the goal is to have a bill on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk by the end of November.
But a teacher union leader questions whether Pavlov can muster Senate support.
“This is going to be a step too far for many people, and it’s going to be a hard sell to the public,” said Doug Pratt, the Michigan Education Association’s public policy director.
“I’d hate to be in their seats when the public realizes that their local, neighborhood schools are under attack.”
Michigan has 255 charter schools, intended to be innovative, independent schools approved by a public university, community college or school district. Expanding their numbers is among reforms backed by state GOP leaders and President Obama.
But lawmakers and university leaders said obstacles – especially the cap on university-approved schools – are preventing successful groups in other states from setting up in Michigan.
A national school choice group said the changes could attract more operators, but noted Michigan already is charter friendly.
Michigan is ranked No. 5 by the Center for Education Reform, out of 41 states and the District of Columbia with charter laws.
Allowing community colleges and universities to authorize charters is considered a plus, and Central Michigan University is a national leader in school oversight, said Alison Consoletti, vice president for research with the Washington, D.C., group.
“There are states that allow only school boards to authorize schools, and not all of them are open to the idea of allowing competition,” she said.
Timothy Wood, who heads Grand Valley State University’s charter school office, said operators also want to have one board oversee multiple charter schools.
GVSU is the state’s second-largest authorizer with 44 schools and three set to open in 2012. He said the university would add schools, but wouldn’t expand dramatically if the cap is lifted.
“We’re looking at growth with quality,” Wood said. “We’re going to look to those quality operators who have demonstrated success, not open schools just to open them.”
He said university charter authorizers met recently with leaders from California-based Rocketship Education, Massachusetts-based Lighthouse Academies and Minnesota-based SABIS School Network, which already operates schools in Flint, Saginaw and Detroit.
Representatives from Rocketship were among those testifying before the Senate Education Committee.