Gov. Whitmer’s budget ‘unfairly’ targets Michigan’s online charter schools, critics say

(The Center Square) – Michigan’s online charter public schools have a 20% decrease in spending in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2023-24 budget proposal.

The second-term Democrat’s fiscal plan unveiled…

(The Center Square) – Michigan’s online charter public schools have a 20% decrease in spending in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2023-24 budget proposal.

The second-term Democrat’s fiscal plan unveiled Wednesday includes a 5% increase for traditional public school online teaching.

Whitmer’s reasoning ties in to a lack of brick-and-mortar buildings and related infrastructure.

Public charter school teacher Amy Dunlap, chairwoman of the National Coalition of Public School Options – Michigan Chapter, disagrees. In an interview with The Center Square, she pointed out the Michigan International Prep School in Davison where she teaches maintains four learning labs for online students.

In a joint news release, state Reps. Jaime Greene, Republican vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, and Kathy Schmaltz, R-Jackson, expressed their disagreement with Whitmer’s plan.

“The governor’s proposal unfairly targets cyber schools and, if enacted, would hurt some of the most vulnerable kids in Michigan,” Greene said. “The governor needs to realize that per-pupil funding goes directly to help educate students, plan a curriculum and pay educators. Cyber schools should not be treated any differently than traditional schools.”

Schmaltz said, “More than 21,000 students across Michigan attend cyber schools for good reason. Many students excel in this environment and they deserve to reach their fullest potential. I urge the governor to reconsider this discriminatory proposal and treat all students fairly.”

Michigan allocates $9,150 annually for traditional public school students, which will be increased by 5% if Whitmer’s budget is approved. Online charter public schools, on the other hand, would only receive $7,687 per student. Funding per traditional online public school students would be the same as traditional public school in-person students.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said in a statement that Whitmer is reneging on promises “to empower every child … to pursue their potential” made in her inaugural address on Jan. 1.

“Michigan needs to provide equitable funding to every student and every school,” Quisenberry said. “After three school years of pandemic-interrupted learning, and plenty of evidence that students have fallen tragically behind as a result, our top priority with this budget should be treating all students equitably so that they can get back on track. Michigan parents have the right to make a decision about where their student attends public school and for the public funding the state of Michigan provides for a public education to follow them.”

Quisenberry also noted Whitmer’s proposed cut would harm vulnerable students, including “students who are dealing with medical and mental issues, students who are enrolled in their school because they fear for their safety, members of the LGBTQ+ community. These are students we should be looking to lift up; instead, they’re being held down.”

Dunlap said online learning was crucial to many students during the recent pandemic, and ensuring they remain robust could stem learning loss in the event another pandemic occurs.

“The governor’s budget rightly recognizes that Michigan children are struggling coming out of the era of pandemic ‘learning,’ and that resources are needed to bring students back to where they need to be academically,” Dunlap said. “What is confounding, however, is that while spending hundreds of millions on these initiatives, the governor’s proposal at the same time slashes funding for children who have found their academic homes at one of Michigan’s full-time online charter public schools.”

She and her organization want “every lawmaker to fund all children in Michigan equally.”

Tonya Lowry is superintendent of the Uplift Michigan Online School headquartered in Stephenson. She told The Center Square in an email she’s also concerned about vulnerable students.

“Many students who come to cyber schools do so because of rampant and unbridled bullying,” Lowry wrote. “This bullying can include racism, homophobia, physical assaults, sexual assaults, and attacks on students with disabilities.  Some students come to us so traumatized it can take weeks to build a small amount of trust. We also serve many students who the traditional seated options didn’t work for and are behind, significantly, because of it.”

Lowry said funding cuts could result in negative outcomes for students, with lost access to “resources, staff, and supports specifically targeted at serving their unique needs.”

She added, “Cyber schools have costs that brick-and-mortar schools don’t.  These costs greatly offset the lack of building and transportation expenses.  Cyber schools don’t receive local funding and can’t leverage millages. We already are funded at far less than traditional districts because of that. Making a cut of 20% just further exacerbates the funding inequality for our kids.”