LANSING (AP) - Michigan won't be flooded with a huge wave of new charter schools next academic year, despite a new state law that lifts restrictions on the number allowed in the state.
While some decisions on openings and closings have yet to be made, it appears that Michigan's overall number of charter schools will grow by roughly 20 or fewer next fall - adding to the 255 now operating in the state.
Critics of expansion - mostly Democrats, teachers unions and administrators more in line with traditional public districts - feared scores of new public charter schools would open as operators raced to cash in on the Republican-led Legislature's decision to lift the cap on university-authorized schools. But that isn't going to happen, at least not this fall.
"You don't just wake up one day and say 'I'm going to open a school'," said Gary Naeyaert, spokesman for The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. "It can take two or three years, and there's a process."
Charter schools can be authorized or "chartered" by public universities, community colleges, traditional K-12 school districts, intermediate school districts or a combination of those agencies. They are public schools, but typically are independent from the traditional school district in which they are located.
Supporters say charters offer families more academic choice and foster competition that can improve the performance of all schools. They sometimes offer classes rich with a specialty such as science, math, music or art that can attract students with those interests. But critics say charters rob students and much-needed state aid money from traditional public school districts that already are struggling with declining enrollment. Critics also are bothered that some charters are managed by for-profit companies.
It's not a new debate. Michigan has had charter schools since the mid-1990s, and now roughly 7 percent of the state's 1.55 million public school students attend one. Charter school enrollment has grown about 16 percent in the past five years while overall public school enrollment has declined in Michigan.
Universities sponsor most of the state's charter schools. But they have been maxed out at a state-set limit of 150 schools for years. The new state law raises the cap on university-authorized schools to 300 through the end of this year, then to 500 through 2014 before disappearing entirely in 2015.
Universities authorizing charter schools won't come near the elevated caps. A major reason is that it takes at least 18 months, and sometimes a few years, for a project that will be authorized to go through the approval process and open.
Some organizations have said Michigan's expansion law doesn't come with enough quality controls. Education Trust-Midwest, a policy and advocacy group, said after the bill passed last year it is "deeply concerned the legislation did not include language that would have ensured that new charter school expansion will be one of high quality for all of our students."
But expansion supporters say quality already is addressed because charter schools must meet the same requirements as other public schools. Supporters say quality also will factor into expansion decisions. With the cap gone, universities shouldn't feel as rushed to open schools as they sometimes did when the number of available slots was limited.
Basic market forces also play a major role in the number of charter schools that will open in the state. Most charters are located in or near struggling urban school districts where families are looking for other public school options.
A recent list of 14 university-authorized charters already expected to open in the fall - compiled by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies - includes eight in Detroit, where the traditional school district is under the oversight of a state-appointed emergency and has been rapidly losing enrollment. Two others are near Detroit, in Hamtramck and Harper Woods.
Other charters are planned for Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti. Many of the schools would have opened this fall regardless of the new law, as other charters close or change status in state law, which would have given a university another authorization slot.
"How many charters does Michigan need? That's driven by quality as well," said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. "Operators are going to look at the places they intend to go and ask, is there a place for me here? What's the community like? What's the census data like? What is the quality of the schools surrounding me? If there are some low-performing schools in some community - yeah, we need a new school there to improve everybody's game. If there are high-performing schools and they're not at capacity, it's probably not a great idea to open any kind of a school there."