Gov. Snyder Seeks Michigan Education Overhaul Through School Choice

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 19, 2012 3 min read
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A sweeping education overhaul bill that has been presented in draft form by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, would seek “removal of a district ‘ownership’ of a student,” performance-based funding for all courses, and a scholarship program for those students who graduate high school early, among other things.

The bill, called the Michigan Public Education Finance Act of 2013, is ambitious enough to be described as a replacement for the 1979 law that governs school funding in the state, according to Detroit Free Press writers Paul Egan and Chastity Pratt Dawsey. In addition, the bill would create a system in which state education funding “will actually follow the student,” and also create a statewide system of online courses which any student could participate in. Districts could opt out of the “open enrollment” system in the proposed law, but they aren’t allowed to limit a student’s online course options. You can read the official summary of the bill and related documents at this site.

You may recall that on Nov. 6, one of Snyder’s most prominent achievements, a bill that gave emergency financial managers in districts (as well as cities) the power to toss out collectively bargained contracts with unions, was shot down by voters. So while that undoubtedly counted as a setback for Snyder and conservative politicians in Michigan, it’s clear that the idea of broader check on Snyder’s ambitions, in terms of advocating for big education policy changes, is off the mark.

In a memo to Snyder, Richard McLellan, the attorney who oversaw the proposal’s creation, said the bill does not contain specific recommended levels of funding, either for K-12 generally or for specific programs, saying that responsibility belongs to others.

He also raised several questions that still need to be answered by policymakers as the proposal is debated (The “enrollment district” described below is defined by McLellan as “the school district a student and his parents would select as the primary school authority for the maintenance of records and payment of public funds for the student’s education.”) These questions include:

• Does the enrollment district “own” the student in the sense that it will be held
responsible for the outcome even though the school does not control all the
student’s courses? This is where data and record-keeping requirements may
undermine a new approach.
• Does the enrollment district have any mandatory counseling function to assure the
student only takes courses that meet the student’s needs?
• Does the enrollment district have the power to prohibit a student from taking a
course offered by another Michigan public school and does this create a financial
incentive for the enrollment district to act in the district’s economic interest rather
than the academic interest of the student?
• How and how much is the enrollment district paid for performing these functions?
We will include a placeholder for this concept, recognizing that work will need to
be done on the scope of the function and costs involved.

As you might imagine, those with a vested interest in the existing framework of K-12 education in the state find what Snyder is proposing nerve-racking. Via Michigan Live’s Dave Murray, here’s what John Austin, president of the Michigan Board of Education, had to say in a column about the bill: “This legislation creates an unlimited and largely unregulated marketplace of new online schools, for-profit-run schools, schools run by businesses, universities, community organizations, and municipal governments. It would allow new authorizers to create schools in any location, for any reason, with little oversight. Nowhere in the proposed legislation is there a rationale for how this proliferation of new schools will improve overall education quality and outcomes for students in Michigan.”

In a Politico story published Nov. 19, you can read a lot about how Republican governors are talking about recalibrating their message and policies to reach more voters in the wake of Gov. Mitt Romney’s defeat in the presidential election. But aside from a few tangential references to the fate of state ballot measures related to collective bargaining rights (including Proposal 2 in Michigan), education policy overhauls don’t get mentioned as an area where the governors say they need to rethink their approach or back off. Perhaps that’s a sign that more big-footprint efforts like Snyder’s are coming down the line in 2013.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.