A history of charter schools in Michigan: A quarter-century of fighting for students

Buddy Moorehouse
Nov 18, 2020 3:45:00 PM

To figure out where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve been.

For Michigan’s charter schools, it’s been a quarter-century journey of innovation, choice and achievement – one that’s included plenty of ups and downs. And 26 years after the first charter school opened in Michigan, the battles are continuing.

As of the 2020-2021 school year, there are 292 charter schools in Michigan, educating nearly 150,000 students – about 10 percent of the state’s school-age population. There are about 10,000 charter school teachers in Michigan, and more than 1,500 administrators.

Particularly in the state’s urban centers, charter schools have become extremely popular. Half the students in Detroit and Flint attend charter schools – among the highest percentages in the country. From the western reaches of the Upper Peninsula to the Ohio border, charter school students and families are finding success and opportunity. 

That’s where we are now. But we didn't get there overnight.

Let’s go back to the day it all officially began– Jan. 14, 1994 – the day that Gov. John Engler put pen to paper and signed the legislation that created Michigan’s charter school law. A few months earlier – in October of 1993 – the governor spoke to a joint session of the Michigan Legislature, outlining the education reforms he felt the state needed to move us forward.

Gov. Engler urged the Legislature to adopt a law that would allow the creation of these new entities called public school academies – or “charter” schools. They would still be public schools in every way, but the community members and educators who formed them would have the freedom to innovate in a way that would allow for great achievement and accountability.

Minnesota had pioneered this “charter school” idea two years earlier, and Gov. Engler wanted Michigan to join the reform movement. So Sen. Dick Posthumus introduced the legislation in late 1993, the Legislature passed it, and on Jan. 14, 1994, Gov. Engler signed it into law. Michigan had become a charter school state.

On the 20-year anniversary of the legislation in 2014, Gov. Engler paused to reflect on what it all meant.

“We had high hopes and expectations when the charter school law was signed 20 years ago, and it’s gratifying to see that the dream we had on Jan. 14, 1994, has become a reality,” Engler said. “Parents deserve a quality choice when it comes to their child’s education, and charter schools have provided that choice. In the past 20 years, Michigan’s charter schools have shown that innovation and accountability will lead to improved student achievement.

“We've come a long way in the past 20 years, but there's still much work to be done. Every child in Michigan deserves a quality education in a quality school, and we can’t rest until we’ve reached that goal.”

In March of 1994, Michigan’s voters did something equally historic. They passed Proposal A, which radically changed the way schools in Michigan would be funded. Previously, schools were funded through local property taxes on a community-by-community basis. If voters in Ann Arbor wanted to spend more on their local schools than voters in Saginaw, they could do it. But they’d pay for it, too. As a result, there were great inequalities in education funding (and quality) throughout the state.

And school choice was nonexistent. If you lived in Ann Arbor, your kids went to school in Ann Arbor. Period. If you lived in Saginaw, your kids went to school in Saginaw. Period. If you wanted to send your child to a public school that you thought fit their needs better, your only “choice” was to move.

With the passage of Proposal A, though, the door to school choice was opened. Proposal A changed education funding to a statewide per-pupil formula. Property taxes were slashed, and the sales tax was raised from 4 cents on the dollar to 6 cents on the dollar to fund it.

And along with these new “charter schools” Michigan was seeing, the state would also adopt a schools-of-choice law a couple years later, in 1996. The law would allow any district in the state to open its doors to any student in the state. It wasn’t mandated, but if the Howell Public Schools district wanted to start allowing students from Brighton and Milford to attend, they could.

While many districts abstained from joining the schools-of-choice parade, many others did. As a result, for the first time in Michigan’s history, parents actually had a choice of where their children attended school.

The true leaders when it came to school choice, though, were Michigan’s charter schools. In the fall of 1994, the first nine charter schools in the state opened their doors:

  • Aisha Shule in Detroit
  • Caledonia Charter Academy in Caledonia
  • Casa Maria in Detroit
  • Horizons High School in Wyoming
  • Macomb Academy in Clinton Township
  • New Branches School in Grand Rapids
  • Northlane Math and Science Academy in Freeland
  • West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science in Grand Rapids
  • Windover High School in Midland

Each of the nine original schools had its own story and its own vision, and it didn’t take long for the country to take note.

On Oct. 31, 1994, a Michigan charter school student named Zach Leipham became the face of the charter school movement in Michigan. Time magazine ran a cover story on Michigan’s charter schools that week, headlined “New Hope for Public Schools.” On the cover was a smiling second-grader from the West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science with his hand raised high – little Zach Leipham.

Author Claudia Wallis’ story from Oct. 31, 1994, concluded with this paragraph:

Parents want better schools now. And in spite of the obstacles, they are organizing charter schools in droves and flocking to what few exist. Principal David Lehman of West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science, near Grand Rapids, has a sheaf of applications several inches thick for the year 1997, though his school has no track record. This summer he got a letter from Amy and Ron Larva of Grand Rapids. Their child was not yet born, they wrote, but they wanted to reserve a kindergarten spot for the year 2000.” 

In 2014, MAPSA tracked down Zach Leipham, who ended up graduating from the West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science. Zach, who is now 34 and lives in Chicago, reflected on what it meant to be the “face” of charter schools back when it all started.

“I was a pretty scared child back then, so I think my parents chose West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science due to the smaller class sizes and private school values,” Zach said. “I attended the academy in the first years of the school so we moved with the school three times in three years. It was challenging, but gave us so many fabulous hands-on opportunities. It was a fantastic elementary school experience. One year I remember being right on a farm so we got to dig in the dirt a lot and help plant. They also recognized that I was a strong reader early on so they tailored things to me and gave me harder things to read. I was really proud of being moved up into a higher grade for reading.

“I still keep in touch with a couple of teachers – they are so dedicated and have been such mentors to me,” he added. “My wife and I haven’t thought about whether we’ll send our future children to charter schools or not yet. We’ll have to look closely at the opportunities here in Chicago and decide what’s the best fit for each child. I’m very happy with my experiences in charter schools and am happy to hear how they’ve continued to develop and grow.”

Just one day after the cover story featuring Zach Leipham hit the newsstands, though, some defenders of the status quo attempted to take the air out of the balloon. On Nov. 1, 1994, a group of charter school opponents filed suit in Ingham County Circuit Court, challenging the constitutionality of charter schools.

The main party to the lawsuit was the Michigan Education Association, which vigorously fought charter schools from the inception, and continues to fight them to this day.

In a report celebrating the 15-year history of Michigan’s charter schools in 2009, the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University (later named the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University) detailed the lawsuit:

The law was officially challenged in 1994, in a lawsuit filed by the MEA that assailed the constitutionality of the new charter law and stopped the flow of state aid to the new schools. The Legislature took action by putting the charter schools under their local intermediate school district to keep state aid flowing and by passing a new law that addressed the court’s concerns.

As more charter schools were opened over the course of the next few years, the legal challenge progressed through the courts. It eventually reached the Michigan Supreme Court in 1997.

The same year, the MEA developed an official organizational policy that attempted to support charter schools. It turned out to be a difficult position to maintain. Charter schools had a history of stirring partisan furor, and the MEA – an entity that supports its members and survives on member support – wrestled unsuccessfully to embrace a decidedly non-unionized education environment.”

The next major legal challenge involving Michigan’s charter schools came in 2001, when a little-known community college in the Upper Peninsula decided to start authorizing charter schools.

Bay Mills Community College was a federal tribally controlled community college in the U.P., not far from Sault Ste. Marie. When Bay Mills chartered its first school in 2001, the lawsuits started flying once again.

At the root of the issue was this: Michigan’s charter school law said that while state universities could charter schools anywhere in the state, community colleges could only charter them within their boundaries (i.e., Washtenaw Community College could only charter a school in Washtenaw County).

Because of its status as a federal tribally controlled community college, though, Bay Mills’ geographic boundary was the entire state of Michigan. So Bay Mills began chartering schools all over the state. The school’s road to becoming an authorizer had begun in 1996, when officials from Bay Mills began negotiating with state officials.

Quoting from CMU’s 2009 report:

Our community has always placed a high value on education, both to help future generations advance
but also as a way for us to pass down our culture and heritage from one generation to the next,” said Mickey Parish, President of Bay Mills Community College. “Our college exists to serve a historically underserved population, and to help them improve their lives. Chartering K-12 schools is an extension of this mission, and we are proud that the schools we charter provide urban, minority, and poor students throughout Michigan with educational opportunities they would not otherwise have.

Bay Mills’ status as an authorizer became important because in 1999 – much to the delight of charter school opponents – Michigan reached the statutory cap on the number of state university-authorized charter schools: 150. Because state universities were the primary authorizers of new schools, hands were now tied if a promising new school wanted to open.

Enter Bay Mills. Unlike state universities, community colleges were not subjected to the cap. So Bay Mills could authorize as many worthy charter schools as it wanted.

This triggered another lawsuit by the MEA in 2001, challenging Bay Mills’ authority to authorize schools throughout the state.

This lawsuit dragged on until 2006, when the Michigan Court of Appeals finally affirmed Bay Mills’ right to authorize schools throughout the state. The court ruled that the MEA had “not a shred of evidence” that the union had the right to sue.

So Bay Mills continued to charter schools – mostly in urban areas, in keeping with its original mission.

As the years marched on, Michigan’s charter school community continued to grow – and change lives for the better. In 1997, Michigan topped 100 charter schools for the first time. In 2004, the state saw 200 charter schools for the first time. And in 2015, we hit 300 schools for the first time before retreating back just a bit.

There were also plenty of academic and anecdotal success stories that let proponents know they were on the right track. Some stories that are worth noting:

  • In 2009, Canton Charter Academy ended up as state’s the top-performing school on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test - the first time a charter school earned that distinction.
  • In 2011, Black River Public School in Holland learned that it had been named the No. 1 high school in Michigan by the Washington Post, which also ranked Black River No. 9 in the entire Midwest. It marked the first time that a charter school was ranked as the No. 1 high school in Michigan – an occurrence that has become increasingly common since then.
  • In 2017, the top three high schools in the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the Best High Schools in Michigan were all charter schools: No. 1 Wellspring Preparatory High School in Grand Rapids, No. 2 Arbor Preparatory High School in Ypsilanti; and No. 3 Black River.
  • In 2018, Achieve Charter Academy and Canton Charter Academy, both located in Canton, were named National Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education – the first time a charter school in Michigan had earned that honor. The following year, Eagle Crest Charter Academy in Holland also earned the Blue Ribbon honor.

Landmark research was also supporting the idea that charter schools were outperforming traditional public schools in Michigan. In 2013, Stanford University’s respected CREDO Institute released a report that said the average charter school student in Michigan gains an additional two months of learning every year in reading and math. In Detroit, the gains are even more dramatic: the average charter school student gains an additional three months of learning every year.

So this “experiment” that Gov. Engler signed into law seemed to be working. Kids were learning, parents were getting to “shop” for the right school, and achievement was on the rise.

Because the charter school world was a mish-mash of individual schools and authorizers all over the state, there was nothing to unify the charter school community – to bring them all over one umbrella and say, “We’re all in this together.”

Enter MAPSA. The Michigan Association of Public School Academies formed in 1996 as a membership and advocacy organization for the state’s charter schools, with Jim Goenner serving as MAPSA’s first president. Goenner went on to fill other roles in the movement, while Dan Quisenberry became MAPSA president soon after.

Throughout its two decades, MAPSA has been seen as a strong advocate for the rights of charter schools, and indeed, the organization has scored some stunning legislative victories – none bigger than in 2011, when MAPSA led the fight to lift the cap on university-authorized schools.

It had become a fiercely political debate, with Democrats and their teachers union backers opposing charter schools, with Republicans and most business leaders were in favor of them. The start political lines which had been drawn in the state stood in stark contrast to what was happening locally, where every president during the charter school era (Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican George W. Bush) have all been staunch supporters of charter schools.

So the battle lines were clearly drawn in 2011, when MAPSA let the fight to lift the cap. MAPSA’s argument is that with so many students on wait lists throughout the state, a parent needs to win the school’s lottery just to get his child in the right school. And because of the cap, some charter schools had wait lists of 200, 500 even 2,000 students. One school in Ann Arbor had two openings for 500 applicants.

Testifying before the Senate Education Committee, MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry made his point by holding up a lottery ticket. He told the story of the school in Ann Arbor with the 500-student wait list, and then told the Senators:

I’m holding a lottery ticket here, and I have a better chance of winning this lottery than the parent at that school in Ann Arbor has of winning that lottery. And you shouldn’t have to win a lottery to get your child in the right school.

After three months of testimony – and more opposition by the MEA and the other defenders of the status quo – the cap-lift legislation made it through the House and Senate. Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law in December of 2011. Michigan’s charter school law had just taken a huge step forward.

The rest of the decade brought more legislative and legal battles, as the opponents of charter school students continued to press on.

In 2014, State Rep. Sarah Roberts and a handful of colleagues wanted to put a halt to innovation and parental options. Roberts introduced legislation that would put a moratorium on any new charter schools opening in Michigan, saying without evidence that “charters are failing our children.”

MAPSA and the charter school world fought back. Quisenberry called the legislation a "partisan and politically motivated attempt to put the needs of adults ahead of the needs of children. With so many Michigan students still stuck in failing schools, it's sad and disheartening that anyone would want to take options away from parents."

Thankfully for students and families, the legislation went nowhere.

Following a protracted legislative battle that began in 2017, the charter school community scored a huge win in January of 2018, when the Legislature voted to include charter schools in regional enhancement millages. One of the champions of the legislation was Rep. Tim Kelly of Saginaw, chair of the House Education Committee, who said, “This is about basic fairness for all students. Without this law, we have deemed that the traditional public schools have exclusive right to the taxpayers’ pocket. That’s not fair to me.”


The decade of the 2010s began with a huge charter school battle – the fight to lift the cap – and it ended with an even bigger charter school battle.


On Oct. 1, 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a line-item veto that stripped $240 in funding from every charter school student in the state – and only charter school students. It was an attempt get the Republican-led Legislature to give in on some of her budget demands, but it ended up backfiring.


A huge outpouring of anger and outrage came raining down on Lansing from the bipartisan charter school community. With MAPSA leading the way, more than 10,000 individual emails and letters were sent to the governor and lawmakers, demanding the money be restored. The messages came from school leaders, teachers, parents and students. Several events were also held, including a press conference outside the governor’s office in Detroit. One charter school student who spoke at the press conference put it bluntly in his message to the governor:


Charter schools are in Detroit, and this affects students of color. So regardless of whether it’s charter school or public school, denying that funding is denying equity in Detroit.

Less than two months later, the Governor relented. She struck a deal with the Legislature that restored every penny of the money that had been cut. But as charter school educators soldier on, and as parents continue to vote with their feet to choose these innovative and accountable schools, history tells us that the battle will never end. For the benefit of students across the state – particularly students who have been discriminated against and held back for far too long – it’s a battle that must continue.


Ted Kolderie put it best back in the early 1990s, when the first charter schools were starting to pop up across the country. Kolderie is considered the godfather of the charter school movement, and when someone asked him why these new “charter schools” were needed, he answered:

Learning cannot be significantly better without schools being significantly better.”


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