Michigan's state Senate narrowly passed a bill Thursday that allows the expansion of charter schools in the state.
The bill now goes to the state House after the 20-18 Thursday vote resulting from some Republicans joining Democrats opposing the legislation. It's part of a seven-bill package titled the Parent Empowerment Education Reform Package that aims to increase options for public school students and parents.
Thursday's bill removes a cap on the number of schools authorized by state universities and also makes it easier for successful out-of-state charter school operators to move into Michigan. The state currently houses 255 charter schools, according to The Grand Rapids Press.
One of the more contentious provisions, however, was removed from the plan. Even after Democratic state Sen. Bert Johnson said Monday that privatizing public education by contracting teachers from private companies was a "very real" possibility, state lawmakers dropped the proposal during Thursday's session.
Still, the passed legislation calls for waiving property taxes for those who lease property to charter schools.
"This bill enables parents to choose the best educational opportunities for their children and it allows schools to innovate and excel," Republican state Sen. Phil Pavlov said in a statement, according to The Grand Rapids Press. "We must not lose sight of what is best for our kids' education when we discuss these issues."
But Democrats who oppose the bill argue that the proposal helps charter schools, which are often privately operated, while hurting public schools by stripping them of funding they would have otherwise received.
"All we're doing is subsidizing these for-profit ventures and diverting scarce resources from our neighborhood, locally governed public schools," Democratic state Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood told the Associated Press.
Funding aside, critics also say that removing the cap on charter school operators still doesn't hone in on accountability for quality schools. In a statement Tuesday, activist coalition Excellent Schools Detroit notes that of the state's nine charter operators, just three can report that fewer than half their schools perform in the bottom 25 percent. The statement also points out that 36 charter schools across Michigan are among the lowest performing 10 percent of all schools in the state.
"We believe that quality should always trump quantity," Dan Varner, executive director of Excellent Schools Detroit said in the statement. "In Detroit, we have more than enough seats for all our school-aged children. What we do not have is enough high-quality seats. Our children would be better served by authorizers deliberately moving toward improving or shutting down our lowest-performing schools before adding more to their portfolios. While we support the effort to increase options for Detroit kids and parents, we hope the legislature considers a record of school quality and improvement as a prerequisite for new schools."
Before the bill passed Thursday, legislators also debated school bullying, as Democratic lawmakers attempted to attach an amendment that requires charter schools to implement anti-bullying measures that ban the harassment of students based on weight, gender, race and sexual orientation, Michigan Radio reports. Republicans responded with a separate anti-bullying plan that doesn't specify certain groups to count as bullying. Neither amendment passed and the issue will be revisited later.
Last month, Roy Roberts, former GM executive and current Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, told The Huffington Post that more charter schools are on the list as part of a plan to rebuild Detroit's struggling schools.