On the horizon for MI charters: a vision for tomorrow

Dan Quisenberry
Mar 24, 2021 10:23:30 PM

Many times over the last year - a year full of dramatic shifts and changes, a year of health, civic and political disruption - I’ve looked around and felt the chaos of the moment, and it felt near impossible to see the horizon through the storm. But as the storm begins to settle, the horizon is once again coming into focus - perhaps with even more opportunity. 

As leaders in Michigan’s charter school sector, we believe in a vision for tomorrow, a new horizon after the storm, if you will. That vision believes that every child deserves a quality education in a quality school. In our ideal tomorrow, those quality options will be abundant and accessible; our public education system will be accountable, innovative and successful. We believe this is a vision worth fighting for.

And while the global pandemic has dramatically disrupted the delivery of education, it has also provided insights into new and different ways of providing quality instruction. It has given us a sharp lesson on the impacts that inequity can have on modern learning. Now more than ever, we must fight for ALL students to have access, resources, and opportunity. The required remote learning has given parents new, if not painful insights, into school and a new appreciation for educators and the challenges we face delivering our common desires for their children. These things have added even more to our vision for the future of meaningful public education. 

So how do we reach this vision? What things stand in our way? 

First and foremost, we need policymakers and elected officials of all persuasions to understand the importance of increasing access to a variety of quality school opportunities for all families. We need leaders to support meaningful accountability that empowers educators and allows for innovation, all while assuring that it’s working for kids. We need policymakers to value all students and the schools they choose equitably. 

A tall order, no doubt - but one we feel is absolutely attainable. So how are we doing with our leaders/policy makers.

In Michigan. there are five elected entities of government that hold significant importance for K-12 education, the Governor, the Attorney General, the Michigan Senate, the Michigan House and the Supreme Court. Three years ago, five of those entities were led by people who were supportive of the idea of charter public schools. Today, the leaders of three of those sources of power are not open to, nor are supportive of, charter schools. To put it more plainly, three years ago we were looking at a Republican-led government, while we are now looking at a government that is led by some Republicans and some Democrats. So, is our movement one that is only supported by one side of the aisle? No. Is it more likely that we will face adversity from Democratic lawmakers? Yes. Can we change that? Only together.

Simply put - most lawmakers (on either side of the aisle) don’t know all that much about us. They haven’t taken the time to know our schools, our students, our educators, or the families we serve. They don’t understand the facts about critical things like teacher certification, accountability and school funding. Rather, many are left with a few buzzwords and headlines they see in the news to draw their conclusions - and as we know, this is certainly not our whole story. This is scary for me - we have fewer charter champions in our decision-making bodies than ever before, and we’re feeling the impacts. 

In October of 2019, Gov. Whitmer used a line-item veto to cut nearly $36M in funding for our students, and our students only. While that blow could have devastated our movement, we later learned we were simply a small piece in a big political puzzle. In October 2020, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission adopted a report that called for a 25% reduction in charter student funding, just in an effort to stabilize local traditional districts. They had the opportunity to remove the recommendation back in December 2020, but opted to wait. We persisted for months, calling on hundreds of charter parents, educators and advocates to help us reach the Commission, and finally the recommendation was unanimously struck down this past Monday, March 22, 2021. 

The common thread? Us. We have become an easy target for our decision-making leaders, because for many of them, our movement does not have a face nor a voice. But as demonstrated by this recent win, WE have the power to change that. 

We know that our collective voices matter, that storytelling and sharing the positive impact charter educators are having changes thinking. We know that when we reach out and build relationships with our elected leaders, they are open, they listen, and they understand the realities of charter public schools beyond anecdotal rhetoric. We have seen the impact of reaching out to elected officials through emails, expressing our support for, or opposition to, ideas they are considering. Elected officials and policymakers are impressed when charter educators, parents or students speak in public, testifying to the realities and ideas that will drive education towards the horizon we envision. We know that speaking up and using our collective voice has impact and can change thinking.

The storms of the past year have reinforced for me the importance of this strategic moment, and our elected policymakers hold the key to our vision of a new horizon. We simply must work to engage them, to tell our stories, to use our voices, to testify from our expertise and to influence their thinking in a positive way. And it’s something we can only achieve TOGETHER.

Right now, you can help make our voices known to MI lawmakers and Gov. Whitmer as they finalize the FY22 State Budget, which includes funding for our schools and students. Once you’ve completed the activation, I urge you to share the link within your school community, or with 5 friends/family members. These are the moments where we must show up together, in full force - so that the next time there’s an opportunity to strike an item on a line, those decision makers remember our voices and think twice.

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