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0000017b-35e5-df5e-a97b-35edafaa0000Kids all over Michigan are starting the new school year.We're spending the month of September taking a look at education in our state. To see the stories and interviews included in our "Back to School" series scroll below and check back throughout the month.

New Whitmore Lake "cyber school" took advantage of a loophole to get chartered

Andy Simonds
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Getting a cyber charter was the only way Livingston Classical Academy could finally open its doors.

Technically, Livingston Classical Academy is a "cyber school."

In reality, though, the only class that will be online this year is health – which parents will be encouraged to participate in for the more “sensitive discussions.”

A few more online classes will be added next year, like career readiness and nutrition.

But for the most part, this brand new charter school looks like any other brick-and-mortar K-9 school. Kids in plaid uniforms and khaki pants stop by their lockers, whisper to friends during band class, read the Red Badge of Courage in 7th grade, and take handwritten notes.

That’s because LCA’s founders never envisioned their charter school as having a “cyber” component. In fact, its administrators assure parents that they’re cracking down on any wayward technology use, like personal iPhones or tablets during class.

But it turned out that getting a cyber charter, was the only way this school could open its doors.

FYI, there's more about classical education and this school's appeal to conservative families in Part 1of this two-part series.

After so many rejections, cyber as a last resort

Dick Streetman does not like to use the term loophole. Still, the patient, courteous school board president at Livingston Classical is practical and honest and doesn’t deny that, OK, maybe his school is using a loophole in Michigan’s cyber school law.

But he says it was a last resort.

“Because the rest of the education world in the state of Michigan is dead set against us,” he says the morning of the first day of school.  

See, Streetman had a problem.

He and his fellow board members dreamed of starting a school. And in Michigan, you need a charter from an authorizer, like a public school district or a public university.

But for years, they kept turning Streetman down, over and over again.

“The universities are not interested in chartering something that’s more…traditional,” he sighs.

Where Streetman says "traditional," others might say, "conservative." This school he and his board members wanted to open is part of the Hillsdale College charter school initiative.

It’s a national push from the conservative private college to open “classical” charter schools, which stress Greek and Roman history, the Western tradition, moral character, and a Judeo Christian heritage.

Hillsdale provides schools with curriculum, teacher training, and an overall model. But it can’t give them a charter because Hillsdale is a private college.

That’s where Whitmore Lake Public Schools came in.

Struggling financially, a public school district looks to charter schools

Tom DeKeyser is the kind of guy you imagine mopping the cafeteria floor after everybody else at school goes home, or getting calls from stranded 10th graders who need a ride to their basketball game.

He’s the superintendent of Whitmore Lake school district, and he’s the high school principal. The district’s been struggling financially the last few years, and made a bid to annex into neighboring school districts.

When those options failed, district administrators got creative.  

It put out a call this summer for charter school applications from cyber schools. Cyber schools, administrators knew, tend to attract homeschool kids and students that weren’t coming to Whitmore Lake anyway.

With a cyber school, Whitmore Lake wouldn't have to worry about a nearby charter school stealing away their own kids.

So by chartering a cyber school, the district could make a little extra money: charter authorizers get a percentage of their charter schools’ state funding. But this way, Whitmore Lake wouldn’t have to worry about a nearby charter school stealing away their own kids, and the state funding that comes with each student.

That’s where Dick Streetman and his team saw their chance.

“It allowed us, after trying to go the other routes, going to the Universities, to get chartered,” he says.

Streetman and the board’s attorney sat down and took a look at what, exactly, you have to do to be a cyber school in Michigan.

Nothing in the law requires that a cyber school must have a certain amount of teaching online.

Turns out, not much. Nothing in the law, as it’s written, requires that a certain amount of teaching has to happen online.

This worked just fine for Whitmore Lake, because even though Livingston Classical Academy wouldn’t really be your typical “cyber” school, the district knew what kind of kids this classical, Hillsdale-affiliated school would attract.

A full third of the kids at LCA come from homeschools. Another third come from private schools in the area. No competition with Whitmore Lake.

At the school’s first ever assembly, kids are a little quiet, and a little nervous – it’s everybody’s first day at a brand new school, after all. But several kids say they know a few friends from church, or a music class that home school students attend.

For those first-timers at a public school, it’s exhilarating. “What’s an assembly?” one first-grader lisps, confused.

Asked how it feels not to be homeschooled, one fifth grader nods tentatively. “Pretty good,” he says.

His friend is barely able to contain himself. “It actually feels better than it used to, because I was begging to go to public school, and my mom was like, ‘No!’”

Taxpayer dollars for a school that found a loophole

So this school isn’t really a cyber school in the way we typically think, isn’t it just getting taxpayer dollars because it – and the district that charters it – found a loophole?

“I guess, yeah, there’s nothing wrong with calling it a loophole,” says Whitmore Lake’s Tom Dekeyser. “It’s not pejorative. It’s really, to me, it’s a way of saying nobody’s done this before.”

Really? Loophole is not pejorative?

DeKeyser laughs. “I, I don’t like the word loophole. I’ve spent so much time looking at this [cyber school] law,” he sighs.

Later that same day, DeKeyser sent a follow up email. It reads, in part:

“Loopholes? I refuse to categorize the adherence of Michigan School Code and policies of the MDE as a loophole. The manner in which this law was applied should not be associated with any negative action conducted by Whitmore Lake Public Schools.”

And so far, the state agrees.

“Whitmore Lake Schools is the Authorizer of Classical Academy,” says Michigan Department of Education spokesperson Bill DiSessa in an email.

“Under 380.551 (2)(e) “Cyber School” means a school of excellence established under this part that has been issued a contract to be organized and operated as a cyber school under section 552(2) and that provides full-time instruction to pupils through online learning or otherwise on a computer or other technology, which instruction and learning may be remote from a school facility. “The law does not specify the number of classes or instruction taught on line…Whitmore Lake has given full approval to the Cyber School Board by issuing a contract…The MDE does not approve a local curriculum.”

So loophole or not, Livingston Classical Academy finally got its charter.

Whitmore Lake - a struggling school district trying to pull together enough resources for its own students – will make some extra money.  

And they’re all fine with calling this a “cyber” school. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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