Opinion: Whitmer turns Michigan’s most vulnerable students into political pawns

Nina Rees and Dan Quisenberry
Olivet students Lakisha Pressley and Rakiya Little, both of Detroit, rally outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in the hopes that Michigan Tuition Grant funding will be restored to state spending priorities moving forward.

As leaders in the fight for equitable education, we’ve become accustomed to some pretty outlandish tactics from forces trying to protect the status quo.

But even we were surprised when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opened a new and brutal front in the war on charter schools this month by vetoing part of a $240 per pupil funding increase the legislature had approved for all public school students.

What made the move so shocking is that the governor only rejected the funding increase for charter school students, while leaving it intact for students in district schools. Yet, all charter schools are public schools. With the strike of her pen, Whitmer showed Michigan’s 150,000 charter school students that they are, as far as the state budget is concerned, second-class citizens.

Sadly, many of the children who attend Michigan’s charter schools have heard this argument before — as have their parents. Detroit and Flint send around half their public school students to charter schools. Do families in these cities need further evidence that the state doesn’t see them as a priority?

It would be one thing if the governor was looking at school quality or effectiveness or community need to determine which schools should benefit from a funding increase. But no. The governor’s only concern was whether a school is labeled district or charter. So even though Michigan’s charter schools already receive an average of $2,782 less per student than district schools, she decided to put them into an even deeper hole.

This despite the fact that since 1994, Michigan’s charter schools have welcomed the most underserved student populations and created opportunities for them that would have been otherwise out of reach. One example is the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit, whose counselors not only help their students get into college but also give them the support to succeed there. Another, Cesar Chavez Academy in Southwest Detroit, will be losing more than a half million dollars as a direct result of the governor’s veto.

Despite the obstacles faced by their determined students — most come from Spanish-speaking households, are living in poverty and deal with trauma on a regular basis — Cesar Chavez Academy consistently ranks as one of the top schools in Detroit with regard to SAT scores and college enrollment. So much for rewarding success.

Living Arts teaching artist Stephanie Howells uses kinetic sculpture to illustrate the properties of waves and energy at Cesar Chavez Academy.

The governor has suggested that she isn’t ideologically opposed to charter school funding, but rather using the funding increases as a political bargaining chip to get the Legislature to agree to her other budget demands. More precisely, Whitmer is using charter school students as pawns in a political game. As usual, it’s low-income students and students of color — whose families have the least power in our system —who can most easily be exploited for political purposes.

Whitmer hasn’t always been this cold-hearted. In fact, just this year, during her March 2019 budget presentation, the governor acknowledged that it “costs more to educate kids in poverty or with additional assistance needs … who require special education support, at-risk students, and those in low-income areas.”

So why, then, would she slash funding for charter schools that educate these students? Why would she risk cuts to important programming and prevent hard-working teachers from getting raises?

Whitmer’s veto is a backward step on the road that should lead to funding fairness for all students and teachers. We urge the governor to end her political game and restore the funding that Michigan’s charter school students, families and teachers need and deserve.

And we implore other leaders across America not to emulate Whitmer’s disastrous attempt to pit public school students against each other in funding battles that leave whole communities worse off.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Dan Quisenberry is the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.