Letter to the editor: Careless​ ​legislation​ ​won’t​ fix​ ​our​ ​schools

Editor’s note: Eric-John Szczepaniak is the chair of the Grand Valley State University student senate educational affairs committee and treasurer of Kenowa Hills Public Schools Board of Education. The opinions expressed in this piece are Szczepaniak’s own. 

Recently, the Michigan Senate passed SB 574, allowing charter schools to get a share in the millages raised by countywide intermediate school districts (ISDs) across Michigan. This week, the Michigan House of Representatives passed their version of the law. It must now go to joint session, where leaders of both chambers iron out the difference, and then be sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for consideration. 

There are currently six countywide millages that have been approved by voters, most recently by voters in the Kent ISD. The other counties include Kalamazoo, Midland, Monroe, Muskegon and Wayne. 

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Hildenbrand (R-Lowell), says that this issue is about fairness as there are 73,000 children within those counties that attend charter schools and do not receive any additional funding in counties with millages. Opponents of the bill argue that the state has not taken proper steps to adequately fund education, which is why these counties must resort to voter-approved enhancement millages in the first place. Charter schools do not pay into the state teacher retirement fund and do not have to provide busing under current law. 

While there are certainly arguments to be made on both sides about the merits of this bill, it is worth noting the stunning disregard for detail in SB 574. The House’s version was a bit better, specifically in regard to the question of retroactivity. However, they did not take any measures to draw back the Senate’s proposal to give huge sums of money to online charter schools. 

While in session, the Senate voted down an amendment to clarify that this bill would not be applied retroactively to the six existing millages. Let me be clear: This legislation should not be applied retroactively. Voters in these six counties voted in favor of an increase in their own taxes to fund public schools. An election was called and the results were certified. If this bill is to move forward, it should not undermine the will of the voters in these six counties. The House’s Education Reform Committee has fixed this, but they must convince their colleagues in the Senate to agree that applying this bill retroactively is a crime in itself. In addition, if the legislation makes it through without clarifying this, then it is sure to result in legal battles between charter schools and public schools over levying funds from these current enhancement millages. The Senate should have made this correction themselves. It is now up to the leading members of the House to convince their Senate colleagues that they do not want impending lawsuits and that this law should only be applied for counties seeking their initial enhancement millage or the renewal of a millage.

The problem that has not caught the attention of the Republican majority in either chamber is how much funds these bills will give to online charter schools. Cyber charters would also be able to get funding “(i)f at least 80 percent of their students were residents of the ISD where the millage is levied and the school’s administrative office is located within the ISD.” Here, I would urge the legislators to withhold funding from these online charter schools because there is not nearly the same amount of overhead fees in administering an online school. In addition, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) made a public statement saying the language is so vague that some for-profit operators from out of state may be able to claim funds from these enhancement millages. Steps should be taken to ensure that Michigan taxpayer funds are staying in Michigan.

If it is to advance, the bill must be reformed in order to assure that monies are not being funneled into cyber charters that have virtually no overhead costs and away from real, brick-and-mortar school buildings. The bill has yet to go before the joint session. I encourage you to contact your state representative and urge them to keep our Michigan taxpayer funds in Michigan schools. Tell them that democracy matters and the U.S. Constitution prohibits “ex-post facto” or “after the fact” laws. Tell them that careless legislation won’t fix our schools.