Opinion: Civil Rights Commission should retract recommendations that discriminate against low-income, minority children

Responding to pressure from hundreds of public education advocates, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) on November 23 will hold a public hearing to “address concerns” over its characterization of charter schools.

The MCRC is charged with investigating and resolving civil rights violations in the state, not creating new ones. Yet that’s precisely what some recommendations do in an MCRC report released last month. The report,Equity in Education,caps a two-year investigation into public education inequities and makes recommendations to lawmakers for resolving them.

Many of the MCRC’s recommendations are solid: increasing access to early childhood education, improving food security for low-income children, adding summer and after-school programs, and more. But the report advises increasing discrimination against a particular group of low-income, minority children.

It recommends amending Michigan’s funding formula to punish public charter school students by giving them just 75 percent of the state per-pupil funding every other Michigan public school student receives. When all sources of school funding are considered, Michigan charter schools already receive about $2,780, or 20 percent, less per pupil than traditional district schools. Now, the MCRC wants to take a quarter of the state funds away from those students and give it to school districts they don’t attend.

“It boggles the mind that the MCRC adopted a report that tells half the students in Detroit and Flint that they’re only worth three-quarters of a person,” former state legislator Buzz Thomas said.

The MCRC should apologize to those kids. Statewide, about 10 percent of Michigan’s public school students attend a charter school. Sixty-seven percent of Michigan of them are minorities, compared to the statewide average of 34 percent. Most of them also live in poverty-a full 75 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Many charter schools are established specifically to serve the unmet needs of Black and Latinx students. It’s a mystery why a commission charged with finding solutions to racial and class inequities would pick on schools that exist because low-income, minority parents have sought them out as alternatives to their default education options.

Unlike their wealthier counterparts, these parents can’t afford private school tuition or relocation to suburbs with high-performing traditional schools. Charter schools offer parents – regardless of residence, race, wealth or heritage – diverse, high-quality educational options. They are often the only alternative for parents dissatisfied with the public school in their ZIP code.

But the MCRC’s report grossly mischaracterizes Michigan charter schools’ missions and legal responsibilities. In reality, charters are free public schools operated independently of district bureaucracies, with more freedom to design their schools and choose their teachers but also more accountability. If they fail—if their students fall too far behind—they are supposed to be closed. They are free to unionize, but only about 10 percent choose to do so.

The MCRC, however, claims charter schools are exempt from state laws on special education, testing, and licensing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Charter schools are accountable to every state law the MCRC lists, and then some. For example, charter schools each year must submit an independent audit of their financial accounting recordsto the state.

The MCRC also claims that charter schools “siphon off” public tax money from public

school districts.” But charter schools are public schools in every way. When a family moves out of a district, or puts their child in a private school, the district loses state and federal money for that child’s education, but no one accuses the family of draining funds from the district. When half of the students in low-income communities like Flint or Detroit attend charter schools, perhaps a more appropriate argument is that traditional public schools siphon money away from charter public schools.

A multitude of studies demonstrates that urban charter schools have large positive impacts on student performance. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) in 2013 found that Detroit students who attended charter schools gained an additional three months of learning each year compared to students with similar demographics and past test scores who stayed in district schools. In 2018, Mackinac Center surveyed 1,400 charter school parents:  80 percent of minority parents assigned their charter school an “A” or “B.”

If the MCRC really wants to address educational equity for the state’s low-income minority children, it should remove the language informing charter school students they are worth 25 percent less than other Michigan kids and delete the falsehoods about their schools.

It could replace all of that with recommendations to improve the state’s charter authorizing process. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools gives Michigan low marks on the transparency of its charter application, review, and decision-making processes. Having 43 charter school authorizers in the state – with no state-mandated guidelines for how to implement accountability protocols – is too many. Adopting state standards with accountability measures for weak authorizers that do not close underperforming schools would be a good start.

Let’s hope the MCRC listens closely during Monday’s hearing. Rather than robbing Black and Brown students of education funding, MCRC should send these constructive recommendations to policymakers in Lansing.

Tressa Pankovits is Associate Director of Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.

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