Friday, July 5, 2013

Backdoor Vouchers

VOUCHERS ARE HERE. Some years ago, Michigan voters actually inserted a prohibition against school vouchers into our constitution. But Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature found a quick and easy way to override voter opinion: incorporate vouchers into the State School Aid bill for 2013–14. The enacted omnibus bill accepted the Governor's proposal to require school districts to pay for students from grades 5 to 12 to take two online courses per semester (more if they are successful with two). I cannot adequately express in polite language what a poorly thought out idea this is. Here are some of my objections:

• This new Sec. 21f “caps” the cost at one-twelfth of the Foundation Allowance per semester course. That is a ridiculous notion of a “cap.” That amount assumes that districts divvy up the Foundation Allowance evenly per course taken in a six-period day, but that is NOT how this money is spent. To begin with, some secondary schools offer 7 or 8 periods per day. But the real problem is that this funding is also used to pay for utilities, maintenance, transportation, administration, excess special education costs (since it is mandated but not fully funded), etc. — NOT just to pay for one period of a teacher's time and the cost of materials. Carving out voucher-like portions of the per-pupil allowance makes it much harder to cover these systemic costs.

• Among those systemic costs will be a new one: the requirement that districts act as unwilling fiscal and administrative agents for a potentially unlimited number of vendors. This is clearly another unfunded mandate.

• There is no guarantee of quality services and little recourse for students or school districts if services are sub-par. Districts are required to pay 80% up front and 20% upon completion, so a lot of profit can be made without successful course completion. On-line schools will rush to take advantage of this money spigot, with almost no requirement that they ensure or demonstrate the quality of the offerings. The existing track record for Michigan “cyber schools” is very poor. The state average ACT score for spring 2013 was 19.7 on a scale that goes up to 36. The average for the seven “virtual” or “cyber” academies was 17.5. For the one with the longest track record (5 years), it was 15.8. The extensive experience in Colorado, with large numbers of on-line schools over many years, was simply dismal. Why are we determined to replicate failure?

• All of the test-driven accountability measures (including the top-to-bottom rankings that trigger serious consequences) will apply to the district and its schools, despite their losing control of a third or more of the instructional day.

• The legislature held no hearings in which district administrators might have advised them that subcontracting a third of the school day will produce a supervision and transportation nightmare. Districts will not be able to offer classes to students during the periods for which funding has been diverted to vendors. Where are those students to go, and how will they get there? Perhaps the legislators assumed that all districts have free space in computer labs to accommodate these virtual students, but I know of no schools where these facilities are not fully booked. Perhaps the vendors will supply laptops to students, since they will certainly have plenty of revenue to do so, but that does not mean there is free space and qualified supervision available in the public schools. No, these students will have to do their virtual classwork elsewhere, and they cannot be allowed to range unsupervised in our schools when they do not have class. How will they get to and from school during the school day? Transportation is already a tremendous burden on traditional school budgets; there is no money available for extra bus runs during the day.

In what universe does any of this make sense?