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Michigan’s new crop of elected leaders are preparing to take over state government in January, and several of them campaigned on putting limits on charter schools and other forms of education choice.

That includes Democrats like Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and the new state House minority leader, Rep. Christine Greig of Farmington Hills. They’ve both spoken about the supposed evils of for-profit charter schools, which is a largely false narrative considering for-profit schools in Michigan deliver some of the best results, and few are actually making money for their founders.

Yet Democrats may be getting some additional ammunition against school choice from an unexpected place: the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which is directed “to investigate alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color or national origin.”

The commission turned its focus this year to probing discrimination in K-12 public schools. It’s held three hearings around the state , and will hold its fourth -- and last scheduled meeting -- in Detroit on Monday.

This may sound fairly innocuous, but school choice advocates believe the intent of these meetings is to ultimately whittle away at charter and private schools.

It’s this last meeting that really has them worried. The event, to be held at Wayne County Community College, will include several panel discussions from both high school students and education experts.

One of topics up for discussion is on the “challenges and opportunities facing K-12 education such as alternative schools, charter schools, virtual schools, and public schools in Detroit and Michigan.” The commission invited Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Wayne State education professor Michael Addonizio, and Dan Quisenberry, the head of Michigan’s charter school association, to participate on the panel. A Detroit education reporter will also be there.

“Charter schools have made a huge impact on Detroit, in terms of funding of K-12 education,” says Agustin Arbulu, the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights

Arbulu says this is a topic of great interest for commissioners, one of whom has a background as a Detroit Public Schools administrator. He expects a follow-up hearing in Detroit on the issue.

Given the proliferation of charter schools in Detroit, and the intense focus on these schools, Quisenberry is worried about the Civil Rights Commission’s intent.

He fears the focus will be on how choice and charter schools are bad for minority and disadvantaged students -- a common assertion among the public school establishment.

And it doesn’t sound like he’s far off in this assessment.

Brian Broderick, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, was perturbed that one of his members -- the head of Cristo Rey High School -- wasn’t allowed to participate on the panel. There are several excellent private schools in Detroit, and that was a serious omission on the commission’s part.

“Private schools where they exist do serve minority students and do it well,” says Broderick, who is also concerned the commission is stacking the deck against the choice community.

He says that school choice has offered Detroit students an escape from the discriminatory practice of having to go to the school in your neighborhood -- no matter how badly that school may perform.

The Civil Rights Commission plans to write a report with its findings after the first of the year, and that report will head to lawmakers, the governor and other pertinent officials. It’s worth noting this is the same commission which earlier this year overstepped its authority by extending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include the LGBTQ community -- a role reserved for the Legislature.

Meddling in school choice is another overreach, says Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican who chairs the Education Reform Committee.

“It is an attempt to discourage choice and charter schools,” he says. “Irony of ironies, both serve the people this very commission purports to protect.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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