Charter schools get a $35M boost, as Whitmer OKs sweeping budget deal

Michigan charter schools will get a state funding increase this year after all.

A budget deal reached this week by Republican lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will send roughly $35 million more to charters across the state, ending a political stalemate that drew the ire of parents and charter advocates.

Whitmer had vetoed the funds — roughly an additional $240 per student — in an effort to force GOP leaders to renegotiate the state budget. She did not strike a similar funding increase for district-run schools.

Whitmer’s veto was reversed as part of a long-awaited budget compromise. In exchange for restoring money for charter schools and other programs favored by GOP lawmakers, Whitmer got funding for additional prison officers, no-fault auto insurance reforms, 2020 Census activities, and the independent citizens redistricting commission.

The deal amounts to an additional $70 million in K-12 spending, representing a small fraction of Michigan’s $15 billion education budget.

While charters have already begun receiving state checks that don’t include the extra funds, they’ll eventually get the full amount,  said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter advocacy group. The group organized several protests against the veto in recent weeks.

“We’re pleased that the funding is being restored,” Quisenberry said. “Kids should never be used in that kind of political discussion ever again.”

The episode played out at a tense political moment for charter schools. As a candidate, Whitmer didn’t speak strongly against charter schools, but her veto echoed the increasingly tough stance that many top Democrats are adopting nationwide.

The budget deal came as a relief to charter school leaders statewide, some of whom had built budgets on the assumption that they would receive a funding increase from the state.

“It feels really great that adults in Lansing, in both parties, quickly came together to remove kids as bargaining chips as they figured out the rest of the budget,” said Kyle Smitley, founder of Detroit Prep and Detroit Achievement Academy. “Our school year is off to a really wonderful start and the notion of having to figure out where to cut $100,000 from our budget has been like an elephant sitting on my chest every single day.”

With Whitmer’s blessing, the Senate passed a bill restoring the funds on Wednesday, and it seemed poised to sail through the House.

“This negotiated supplemental appropriations bill is an important step forward for Michigan, Whitmer said in a statement. “I support this bipartisan bill and will sign it.”

The deal restores other vetoed funding, including for isolated school districts, summer reading programs, and school safety grants. It does not restore funding for Teach for America. In all, 27 of Whitmer’s 147 vetoes were reversed as part of the deal.

The bill also increases funding for early literacy coaches from $21.0 million to $31.5 million, boosting the funding amount per coach, and removing a requirement that intermediate school districts provide a 50% match in support of the coaches.

Charters are public schools — they receive state funding — but are typically overseen by public universities and governed by appointed school boards, instead of elected school boards. They enroll about 10% of students in the state, and much higher proportions in cities, such as Detroit and Flint.

Sabrina Cristofaro is a teacher at Voyageur Academy, a charter in Detroit. Her daughter, a fourth-grader, attends the school. Cristofaro participated in protests against the veto, and she was pleased to learn that it had been reversed.

“I’m very happy, she told a reporter over the phone. “I’m telling another parent and she’s doing a dance right now.”