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School Board Says No to Bills Expanding Charter, Cyber Schools

The board voted Tuesday to formally oppose Senate Bills 618-624, known as the Parent Empowerment Education Reform Act.

The is taking a stand against a group of bills heading through the Legislature, all of which they say could “cripple” local school districts, including Birmingham.

At its meeting Tuesday, the school board voted for a resolution symbolically opposing what is being called the Parent Empowerment Education Reform Package, or Senate Bills 618-624.

“These (bills) are not necessarily in the best interest of all students in Michigan,” said board member Geri Rinschler.

The bills are:

  • SB 618: Eliminates the cap on charter schools in Michigan
  • SB 619: Eliminates the cap on cyber schools in Michigan
  • SB 620: Stipulates that if 51 percent of the parents or 51 percent of the teachers in a public school district sign a petition, the school can be converted into a charter school
  • SB 621: Eases restrictions on non-public school students taking public school courses
  • SB 622: Repeals restrictions on non-public school students taking college courses
  • SB 623: Repeals restrictions on non-public school students taking career school courses
  • SB 624: Requires that all Michigan districts participate in the Schools of Choice program

According to the resolution approved by the board, these bills “have the potential to further erode enrollment and funding provided by local communities” and “eliminate the local community’s authority … to make financial and other decisions at the local level.”

The bills are currently on a fast track through the Republican-controlled Legislature, where the state Senate passed them Oct. 27. The bills are now before the state House for consideration.

School board members specifically took issue with the bills eliminating the caps on cyber and charter schools, as well as the bill requiring schools to participate in Schools of Choice.

Board members agreed that forcing Birmingham to participate in Schools of Choice could have negative repercussions in coming years. The Schools of Choice program requires public schools to enroll nonresident students.

Trustee Robert Lawrence said Schools of Choice is “inherently unfair,” and Trustee Michael Fenberg noted that if Birmingham is compelled to participate, it may have to accept students in its classrooms but not receive any additional funds to educate them.

Trustee Lori Soifer said she is fundamentally opposed to putting public funds toward charter and cyber schools, both of which, she said, don’t necessarily have to follow the state curriculum or have to disclose their financial records, as public school districts do.

“I am fundamentally opposed to the use of public funds going toward charters who don’t have to play by the same rules,” she said.

Superintendent David Larson echoed many of the trustees’ sentiments, stressing that public dollars should be put toward public schools. Charter and cyber schools don’t have the same levels of accountability and oversight, he said, and the research on charters is “suspect.”

Trustee Steve Scheidt said the state is rushing into passing these bills, noting that the data aren't there to back these decisions. Still, the bills are creatively packaged, Scheidt said, and certainly sound like a good thing.

“Who wouldn’t vote for parent empowerment?” Scheidt said. “But this is certainly not good for public schools.”

The board's vote was 5-0 in favor of the resolution, with Trustees Chris Conti and Lawrence abstaining. Both said they didn’t want to vote until they read each bill in full, with Lawrence noting that all six bills aren’t targeted toward districts like Birmingham. Both Lawrence and Conti are running for re-election Tuesday.

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