GOP cancels vote to boost poor students at charters

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A planned vote on legislation in the Republican-controlled state House that would have let charter schools voluntarily use poverty and geography as a factor in admission was canceled because there wasn’t enough GOP support, House Speaker Tom Leonard says.

The plan by a Detroit Democrat would have let charter schools give priority for admittance to poor students who live nearby if they qualify for free or reduced school breakfast, lunch or milk. Under state law, students are admitted on first-come, first-served basis and are chosen by a random selection process when there are more applicants than available seats.

But Leonard said he canceled the vote last week after learning during a Republican caucus meeting that there wasn’t enough GOP support for the measure.

“We caucused on the bill and there just simply was not sufficient votes to get it over the finish line,” the Dewitt Republican said. “I will tell you there were a good number of no votes in the Republican caucus once we caucused on the issue.”

Leonard declined to say whether he was a yes or no.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee and supported the plan, said there were enough yes votes between Republicans and Democrats to pass the legislation, however.

“I think it just wasn’t ready,” Kelly said last week. “To be honest with you, I don’t know why they didn’t put it back. I think we have the votes, and I think you’ll see it back next week.”

The bill, from Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, was prompted by the James & Grace Lee Boggs School on the east side of Detroit, which draws about 20 percent of its students from within 1.5 miles of the school.

It was meant to be a neighborhood school, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis. Instead, about 70 percent of Boggs School students live in other parts of Detroit and 10 percent of its students live in the suburbs.

“The idea is to try to make sure that the kids who live right there who don’t have transportation … that they’re able to go to the school that they want to if it’s literally across the street or a couple blocks away,” Chang said. “As we know, transportation is an issue (in Detroit) and we want to make sure those kids have the ability to go to the school they want to — especially if its their neighborhood school.”

Chang said her staff informed her that the bill will be on the House agenda again at some point next week.

When the Boggs school opened its doors four years ago, 90 percent of its students were eligible for free and reduced lunches. Now 70 percent of its students are, according to the Fiscal Agency analysis.

A 2016 Education of the States report indicated that 30 out of 43 states with charter school laws allow some kind of admission criteria based on geography or income, including Idaho, Delaware, Alabama, Ohio and South Carolina. Other enrollment criteria allowed by Michigan law pare giving preferences for students enrolled in a charter school the previous year, siblings of existing students, and children of charter school employees and board members.

In past House panel meetings, detractors said the bill would have given preference to low-income students at the expense of others and that it could pave the way to state-funded charter schools barring entrance to certain groups of students.

But supporters said it would have let poor students actually go to schools that were meant to serve them rather than relying on the current random lottery system in determining who gets admitted.

In April, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies backed the bill along with the James & Lee Boggs School.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan was neutral and multiple schools opposed it, including the intermediate school districts of Oakland Schools and Wayne RESA. The American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Association of School Boards also opposed the legislation.

Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the school board group, said she understands the legislation’s objective but said public schools are not supposed to use enrollment preferences.

“Traditionally a charter school is a public school, and if we start setting preferences we start closing the door to some people,” Smith said. “In this case, Boggs is a charter school, so the law says that they have to do that by lottery.”