Engler Sees Funding Supplement as Stage for Policies

By Robert C. Johnston — April 21, 1999 4 min read

Gov. John Engler’s plan to augment Michigan’s K-12 education budget over the next two years is making big headlines. But it’s not the new money that’s creating a stir.

The Republican governor has rankled state education groups by calling for myriad policy changes, including requiring school districts to open their extracurricular activities to home school and charter school students and expanding public school choice.

Hearings on the proposal were expected to be held this week.

“There’s definitely some fine-tuning to do,” said Rep. Ron Jelinek, the Republican chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on education. “I’ve heard from a lot of people, and there are some concerns.”

Mr. Engler’s laundry list of policy initiatives is part of a supplemental budget proposal that would add $187 million to the $19.5 billion already appropriated for precollegiate education for fiscal 1999 and 2000. The extra money is designed to pay for increased enrollments and state-mandated special education.

Such fiscal tinkering is common. The broad policy actions are not.

“In recent history, I’ve not seen [a supplemental budget plan] with this amount of policy,” said Don Wotruba, the assistant director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards.

More Access

But Mr. Engler wants to try some new ideas, his spokesman, John Truscott, said.

For example, the three-term governor wants school districts to allow students in private, home, and charter schools to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities in their home districts.

That proposal so far has sparked the greatest reaction.

“Public schools should have a chance to limit opportunities to students who spend time there, not those who are dropped off after 3 p.m.,” said John R. Johnson, the spokesman for the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Mr. Johnson said he was also worried that students from nonpublic schools would not be held to the same eligibility requirements as their public school counterparts. He also cited the cost of equipping a student athlete, which he said can run to $2,000 in ice hockey and $600 for football.

“Now we are talking about students coming in to play when there is no basic foundation grant for them,” Rep. Jelinek added.

About 10 states require public schools to allow home-schooled students access to at least some public school activities, according to the National Center for Home Education in Purcellville, Va. While the center advocates for the rights of families to home-school their children, it does not lobby for access to public school programs.

“Home schoolers pay taxes, and some clamor for access,” said Fred Klicka, the senior counsel for the center. “The concern is, will strings come back for home schoolers because they’re begging for the access to these activities?”

Mr. Truscott said the details of the governor’s plan, such as the issue of eligibility, would be left up to the legislature. “The governor has heard from parents whose children are in charter schools and private schools,” he said. “They wanted the debate to begin, and we’ve done that.”

More Choice

Mr. Engler is also fanning a debate over expanding the state’s already permissive public-school-choice policy. Generally, Michigan students can pick from schools within their intermediate school districts, which essentially are aligned with county boundaries.

The governor wants to expand that policy so that students can attend schools in neighboring intermediate districts.

“You have situations where students can be sent 16 miles across the county, but can’t go to the school one mile away in the next district,” Mr. Truscott said.

Perhaps more controversial is Mr. Engler’s proposal to let districts open “satellite schools” in other districts.

“We envision this early on at the elementary level, where the district is not doing a good job, or there’s parental demand,” Mr. Truscott said.

But others have voiced concerns about districts’ contracting with private companies to run such schools. When that happened in Detroit two years ago, the privately run public school had to close after an audit questioned the school’s attendance data. (“Controversy Dogs For-Profit School for Dropouts,” April 2, 1997.)

“What are we exposing ourselves to?” said Ray Telman, the associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “An entrepreneur can come and say [to a school district], ‘I’ll operate a school in Detroit, and I’ll give you a take of what I make.’ What assures the accountability?”

Gov. Engler’s supplemental budget proposal also calls for raising the number of days on which students are officially counted in calculating state aid--from two days to nine, or one each month of the school year. Mr. Engler says the change would make student counts more accurate, but critics of the idea fear new administrative burdens. House hearings will be held this month.

Finally, the governor wants to define the school day as a minimum of five hours, beginning in fiscal 2001. Anything less than five hours would be counted as a fraction of a day.

Some school administrators say that rule would force them to add days to the school year for activities such as parent-teacher conferences in order to meet the number of days required by the state.

With so many policies being pushed at once, no one is sure which one the governor will back most forcefully. But some speculate that it may not matter.

“John Engler is a masterful politician,” said Jim Ballard, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. “He’s great at throwing 15 balls in the air and knowing that one or two will get through.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Engler Sees Funding Supplement as Stage for Policies