Mich. Senate approves charter school millage shift

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Charter and virtual schools would get a cut of regional education millage property tax revenue under a proposal approved Wednesday by Michigan’s Republican-led Senate.

The legislation, backed by the charter school lobby and choice advocates, was approved in a 23-14 vote after a tense debate between lawmakers who traded accusations of stealing and lying.

Supporters say the legislation would provide funding parity for students attending charter schools, but critics argue it would siphon voter-approved tax revenue from traditional public schools that most students still attend.

“I introduced this bill because there’s over 14,000 public school students in Kent County that are not being treated fairly,” said sponsoring Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, referencing charter school students in his district. “They’re not receiving the same resources as other public school students in our county.”

Kent is one of six Michigan counties where voters have approved a regional enhancement millage allowing the intermediate school district to provide traditional public schools with funding on top of normal state appropriations. Wayne County voters last year approved a six-year $80 million tax. There are also active regional millages in Kalamazoo, Mildand, Monroe and Muskegon counties.

Hildenbrand said money from those existing millages would not go to charter schools, telling reporters the bill would only apply to new millages or those put before voters again for renewal.

But the application to existing millages is not clearly spelled out in the bill, and the Republican majority rejected a Democratic amendment that would have settled the retroactivity question, among other things.

“It’s stealing, plain and simple,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “Stealing from our public schools, and stealing from the will of the people.”

Hildenbrand took exception to Hertel’s comments, responding on the floor by telling colleagues that “an equal sin of stealing is lying.”

On a per-pupil basis, the Wayne County millage generates $376 per pupil for traditional public schools. If charters were included, each school in the county would instead be receiving $287 per pupil, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

There are more than 56,000 Wayne County students who attend charter schools that do not currently qualify for any of the millage revenue, Hildenbrand said, arguing they are “not being treated fairly as well.”

Republicans rejected a series of Democratic amendments that would have stopped millage funding from going to for-profit charters or guaranteed that any tangible property purchased with the funds would remain public assets.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the bill could shift funding from traditional public school classrooms to for-profit management companies, even if the legislation is limited to new or renewed millages.

“The problem is, when they go for renewals, what stops charter school operators from coming in from out of state to try and pass a millage because then they can divert even more money from our traditional schools?”

Critics also argued charter schools should not qualify for the millage revenue because they do not have equal spending obligations in areas like transportation, special education and required employee pension funding. Virtual charters also have reduced building costs.

The legislation now heads to the GOP-led House for additional consideration.