Charter schools turn 20

MARQUETTE – Though charter schools remain controversial – heralded for their abilities to create options for children who might otherwise have none, derided for taking good students away from regular public schools – they continue to help shape the face of education in Michigan.

Michigan charter schools have existed for the past 20 years, begun as part of sweeping educational reforms enacted in 1994 under then-Gov. John Engler.

Former State Sen. Dick Posthumus, a Republican, was the sponsor of the original charter school legislation first approved by the Legislature in 1993.

Posthumus said he saw charters as a way to offer the same choices to low-income families that children from higher income families had by virtue of being able to afford private school.

“We had, over time, created a monopoly in which kids were held captive to their own school district in which they lived,” Posthumus said in a conference call Monday.

Since the passing of the legislation 20 years ago, Posthumus said “we’ve seen a tremendous amount of response by the university system of Michigan.”

Northern Michigan University recently authorized three new charters – two schools had previously been chartered by Ferris State University, while the third was brand new – bringing its total number of charter schools up to 10. Three of those schools are in the Upper Peninsula.

And with Gov. Rick Snyder approving the gradual lifting of the cap on charter schools in 2011, universities have been able to authorize even more charter schools.

Currently, the state of Michigan has 298 charter schools in operation, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, and 9 percent – or 140,000 students – of its student population attends charters.

Engler, who signed the bill into law just days before delivering his state of the state address, had this to say as he addressed Michigan citizens Jan. 18, 1994:

“With charter schools, I predict nothing less than a renaissance of public education in Michigan. By the end of the century, I believe Michigan schools will be the envy of the world.”

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state in the nation to enact a charter school bill, authored by former Minnesota State Senator Ember Eichgott Junge, a Democrat.

“Chartering came from outside the political system, and sometimes the best thing we can do as policy makers is to step back, remove the barriers and let citizens take the lead,” Junge said in Tuesday’s conference call.

She said people in her state were crying out for educational reform, and she saw charter schools as the best option for them.

“Chartering was a way to open up the K-12 public education system to provide more choices, more options, more innovations, more flexibility within the system,” Junge said.

Junge fought her battle in 1991, going up against strong union opposition that almost defeated the bill.

Now, however, she said she’s proud to see the vision for chartering “come full circle,” with the 2011 authorization of the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, the first union-initiated charter school in the nation.

“The same union leaders who vigorously opposed chartering 20 years ago are now board members of a charter,” Junge said.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.