Jacques: Charter school grants safe for now, but future less certain

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Education on Thursday awarded grants to four Detroit-area charter schools, despite efforts by the State Board of Education to delay the process last month.

The state Education Department last year had applied for and won a competitive $47 million federal charter school grant to be used over five years.

This comes as welcome news to the schools that were counting on the additional funds to complete their respective projects prior to the start of the upcoming school year. The one-month holdup had put those plans in jeopardy. 

The Education Department last year had applied for and won a competitive $47 million federal charter school grant to be used over five years, with a focus on helping high-performing charters replicate and expand their work. The grant is also supposed to help ensure students in underserved areas have access to a good school.   

At the State Board’s monthly meeting in May, however, the Democratic majority attempted to halt dispersion of the funds by voting against the proposed grant criteria, claiming past grants had gone to charter schools that never opened and questioning whether Michigan needs any more charter schools.

More:Jacques: Michigan education board holds up $47 million for charter schools

In light of this vote, Education Department officials reached out to the Attorney General’s Office to determine how they should proceed. Interim Superintendent Sheila Alles received a response earlier this month.

According to department spokesman Martin Ackley: “The guidance indicates that the Charter School Program Grant to Michigan under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] establishes federally mandated criteria for issuing the grant awarded to the state, and the State Superintendent is authorized to take all necessary action to comply with the federal grant requirements. This includes authority to accept and expend federal grant funds and does not call for the State Board of Education to approve the federally-mandated grant criteria.”

The four schools that will receive the grant funding are Frontier International Academy, Lincoln-King Academy, Orchard Academy and Star International Academy

Eight schools had applied. Of the four grants awarded, one is to facilitate the opening of a replicated school. The other three are heading to schools that seek to expand.

The State Board didn’t vote again on the charter grant at its June meeting last Tuesday, although about 25 charter school representatives from the eight schools that had applied for the grant showed up for public comment. The board did briefly revisit the grant funding at the end of its meeting, but didn’t take any formal action as it had the previous month.

Board President Casandra Ulbrich, who voted against the grant criteria in May, says the MDE's decision was "not unexpected," and that she's not aware of any recourse the board could take at this time. In an email, though, she said she was "planning to review previous grant awards." 

So while the grants for the coming school year seem safe at this point, charter advocates are more concerned about the next round of grant applicants. That process will likely begin in August, when newly hired state Superintendent Michael Rice will be taking over from Alles.

Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice

Given the board’s general dislike of charter schools, Democratic members may put pressure on Rice to delay or put off the next round of applications.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, is definitely concerned about the future of the remaining grant funding, and he says he’ll be watching the process closely.

“We don’t want politics to get in the way,” he says.