In an attempt to remake public schooling from scratch, Governor Snyder commissioned a proposal by the Oxford Foundation, which advertises that its purpose is to “lessen the burdens of government.” The foundation has now drafted a 300-page “2013 Michigan Education Finance Act” to replace the School Aid Act under which Michigan public schools now operate. The changes proposed are so numerous and wide-ranging that it is impossible to explain — let alone refute — them all in a single column. But Michigan citizens should be aware that drastic and potentially disastrous change is coming to all of our communities, should this act be adopted.
Here are my major concerns:
1. Equal access.
• Already, the three charter schools within the Van Buren school district serve just 26% as many special-needs students and 41% as many economically disadvantaged students as do the regular public schools (based upon Fall 2011 demographic data for the MEAP-tested grades). Because these proposals incentivize advantaged students to leave, they will exacerbate the trend of concentrating the neediest students in the regular public schools without offering the greater resources required to serve them adequately.
• “Any place, anywhere” schooling is only available to those who can get to it — which is precisely those students who are already better prepared for and supported in their schooling.
• Selective enrollment (schools will be able to choose categories of students to serve — or not) will further accelerate the resegregation (by race, poverty, and disability) that is already evident in demographic data for charters. This is simply unacceptable in the United States of America.
• The new forms of on-line schooling will be selectively available to those who have the technology and the Internet access to use them.
• In looking through the demographic data for the charter schools within my district, I noticed a disturbing trend: of the few special education students they do have, many tend not to take the Reading and Math MEAP tests, the ones that count in such metrics as Top-to-Bottom rankings and NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress ratings. Now, this plan proposes to allow new types of schooling to avoid such standardized testing altogether. It is unconscionable to call the majority of schools failures on the basis of this testing and then to exempt the “solution” schools from the same scrutiny.
• I am alarmed at the open door for for-profit schooling with no attempt to screen operators for a history or even a capacity for the delivery of quality services. The miserable failure of on-line schooling, in particular, to adequately serve students elsewhere (note Colorado’s several-year, well-documented failures) should serve as a warning to us that profiteers will most certainly take advantage of this system, to the detriment of our children.
3. Lack of research supporting new initiatives. I thought the Governor’s standard for all government initiatives was that they incorporate research-driven best practices, which almost none of the elements of this plan do. How can we justify experimenting on our children, using public funds, while simultaneously undermining public school systems like my own that are doing the hard, day-to-day work of systematically improving teaching and learning in ways that are proven to work? Many of these “new ideas” are egregiously irresponsible in this regard. The proposers persist in the magical thinking that simple solutions exist for complex problems. Research and documented practice show us what we must do — and these plan elements are mostly unproven or disproven techniques.
4. Nonsensical Economics. The voucher-like, money-follows-child system proposed shows abysmal ignorance about school finance.
• Traditional public schools are built via bond issues paid by residents after they vote democratically to take on that debt. Why would they ever be willing to do that if “freeloaders” can send their children to those schools without paying on that debt? How is it fair to ask them to?
• Dividing up the per-pupil foundation allowance by class period (giving one-sixth of it, for example, to another organization for one class period a day) ignores the reality that per-pupil funding is not used that way. Special education students, for example, typically cost more to educate than per-pupil and special-education funding amounts to; the difference comes from all the other children’s per-pupil funding. Transportation, a huge expense in some large districts and a tiny one in others, comes from everyone’s per-pupil funding. Secondary students, with their science labs, career-tech classes, band and other electives, and extensive athletic programs, cost more to educate than elementary students; the difference comes from elementary per-pupil funding. (This is why there are so few charter high schools — not as much profit to be made.)
• Treating per-pupil funding as a personal entitlement, to be spent at the user’s whim, undermines the entire funding system for public schools. We pay taxes for schools not as user fees but to promote the public good, since every child deserves this opportunity and we all benefit from an educated citizenry. If we move to a voucher-like system, childless taxpayers will be ever more resentful about contributing to what should be a societal cause. They will especially resent having their tax dollars misused by for-profit businesses with little meaningful oversight.
• Public school boards are already tasked with adopting budgets by July 1, long before they know how many students or how much revenue they will have to work with. Introducing as much additional uncertainty about both as these proposals do will make it all but impossible to be good stewards of public tax money.
• The envisioned menu of attendance options for each student throughout each day is supposed to be tracked financially by the traditional home school districts – an accounting nightmare. Even if this impossible task could be done, there is no talk of compensating the unwilling fiduciary agents for taking it on. Can we say, “unfunded mandate”?
There are good reasons why critics from many corners say that this proposal will simply dismantle public education in our state. Our legislature has recently exhibited a propensity to adopt extreme measures with little deliberation. The time to make your views known is NOW.