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A supposedly symbolic vote put $47 million for Michigan charters in question

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When leaders of the Michigan school board voted against a federal grant for new charter schools in the state, they thought they were making a symbolic statement about the program’s checkered past.

Instead, their vote against the guidelines for distributing the funds unexpectedly has delayed disbursing the first grants, tightening the timeline for a handful of new schools that are relying on the funds to open their doors this fall. Michigan has already won the grant, but its officials postponed announcing the first eight grants while they seek a legal opinion from the Michigan attorney general, who will determine whether state school board members have more influence than they thought over the $47 million, five-year grant.

The confusion is the latest manifestation of a long-running debate about charter schools in Michigan, which enroll roughly 1 in 10 students in the state. The vote against the grants was driven by Democrats on the board, who regained control of the eight-member panel last year after two years of partisan stalemate. They argued that earlier iterations of the same program wasted millions of dollars on schools that never opened or that eventually closed.

The delay also underscores the curious position of Michigan’s state school board, an elected body that oversees the state’s education department but has no power over school funding — at least not usually.

Would board members have voted differently if they thought $47 million was actually on the line?

“I have wrestled with that,” said Judy Pritchett, a Democrat who voted against the grants. “I go back and forth.”

Pritchett is certain that the state doesn’t need new schools, given its declining school population.

“We’ve got fewer kids in the state of Michigan, why would we be opening new charter schools?” she said. But she added that, given the choice, she would rather find another way to use the money — perhaps by improving existing charter schools — than send it back to federal authorities.

For now, she’s assuming that the board doesn’t have that choice — that the grants will move forward despite the vote. A representative from the office of the state Attorney General declined to comment specifically on the case.

Charter advocates, however, say they are counseling schools that applied for the first round of grants to prepare for the worst.

“Do you see any promise that these dollars are coming?” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association, adding: “It really is a political discussion that’s gotten in front of servicing kids and communities.”

Nine groups applied for the first round of grants, including four that hope to open new schools by the fall, according to the association.

Casandra Ulbrich, a Democrat and president of the state school board, is standing by the “no” vote, calling it “appropriate public education oversight,” given the history of the charter grants.

She, too, voted “no” with the understanding that the $47 million would likely be distributed in Michigan regardless.

“You can still expend the money, correct?” Nikki Snyder, a Republican member of the board, had asked officials immediately after the vote.

“That is our understanding at this time,” Paula Daniels, director of the state’s Office of Educational Supports, replied at the time. “We will certainly be checking that.”

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