Jacques: Poor kids as pawns? A bad look for Whitmer

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

In a last-ditch effort to secure more of her budget priorities, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is playing hardball with Republican legislative leaders, but she’s misguided in using low-income children as her bargaining chips. 

Earlier this week, Whitmer took out her red pen and went wild, vetoing 147 line items from the budget she received from the Legislature. The nearly $1 billion in cuts she made included the elimination of the $240-per-pupil increase for charter school students, which totals about $35 million. 

More:Whitmer outlines supplemental aid priorities after cuts; GOP: 'Budget is done'

Yet traditional public school students will still receive the foundation grant boost, so the governor is targeting this one group of students, which hardly seems fair to them. 

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently visited Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter that will be impacted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget cuts.

Charter school advocates are calling the move “unprecedented,” and point to how students in the highest-funded districts will still get a funding increase — and charter school students in the state’s poorest cities won’t. 

This raised the ire of Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

“Gov. Whitmer just told 150,000 Michigan students that she doesn’t value them as much as other students, and that’s outrageous,” he said in a statement. “Charter schools are mostly located in the state’s most challenging urban centers, in cities like Detroit and Flint, where students need help the most.”

Whitmer says this was a tough decision for her, but made it in an attempt to protect her “core priorities,” such as funding for prisons and Health and Human Services. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, to discuss her priorities for a potential supplemental spending bill.

Her choice to target charters illuminates Whitmer’s loyalty to teachers unions, who have backed her, and her hostility toward these alternative public schools that have proven a lifeline for families in Detroit and elsewhere. 

An irony is that Whitmer had originally called for funding increases for schools to be weighted toward the ones most in need of additional dollars, including those that have large percentages of low-income students. 

About 75% percent of the students enrolled in the state’s nearly 300 charter schools qualify for federal lunch subsidies — compared with less than 50% in all Michigan districts — so by withholding these funds Whitmer is harming the children she claimed she wanted to support.

Ben DeGrow, education policy expert at the Mackinac Center, says denying funds to certain students because they go to different kinds of public schools is discriminatory and inconsistent with Whitmer's goal of helping districts most in need.

“It’s just wrong,” he says. 

DeGrow says by cutting the funds for charters, Whitmer is leaving them at last year’s funding level of $7,871 per student — $240 behind the lowest-funded districts. 

Charters already receive about 21% less than other public schools, and despite the lower funding consistently boast better academic performance than their traditional public school peers, as both national and state studies have demonstrated.

Whitmer has often raised the specter of “for-profit” charter schools profiting off children, while ignoring those schools are some of the top performing in the state and the profits are either non-existent or minuscule. 

More:Editorial: For-profit charters aren’t that scary

A recent analysis of state test data for low-income students in Detroit found that roughly 20% of third-graders in charter schools scored proficient in reading — not stellar numbers but still about 9 percentage points higher than students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. In addition, MAPSA has reported that the 12 highest-scoring open enrollment high schools in Detroit, based on SAT scores, are all charters. 

“The state’s budget is a reflection of our values, and make no mistake that public health and safety, access to health care, and protecting classroom spending is more important than handouts to lobbyists and vendors,” Whitmer stated in regard to her line-item vetoes.

The governor may have a hard time convincing the public how cutting funding for low-income charter school students reflects Michigan’s values. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques