Fights Loom on Michigan K-12 Overhaul Proposals
Aid, power balance at heart of proposals
A series of education proposals in Michigan could make students, not schools and districts, the hub for state education spending and shift a great deal of power over low-performing schools into the executive branch. The possibilities arising from these ideas have triggered both hope and predictions of catastrophe among K-12 officials and observers.
To a certain extent, the proposals highlight the goals of Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who asked policy experts to come up with a plan to overhaul the state's 33-year-old School Aid Act. He also is interested in expanding the Education Achievement Authority from Detroit to the entire state.
Mr. Snyder's explorations of big policy changes could herald similar efforts by other GOP governors. In nearby Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, who beat back a recall effort this year sparked by his aggressive education and collective bargaining initiatives, has said expanding the state's voucher program is one of his priorities for 2013.
Those two governors might have a particular impetus for moving quickly, even compared with the other 28 Republican governors. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislatures in Michigan and Wisconsin.
"If you're a Republican governor with a Republican legislature in a traditionally Democratic state, you don't have time for incrementalism," said Dick Carpenter, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
One way to view the proposed Michigan laws is that, ostensibly, they would put more power in the hands of students and the state's executive branch, while reducing the relative influence of school boards, administrators, and the state education department.
A draft version of the Michigan Public Education Finance Act of 2013 would replace the School Aid Act of 1979, based on a model proposed by Gov. Snyder of what he calls "Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, and Any Pace" learning. It would include the "removal of a district 'ownership' of a student," according to a summary of the proposed act by the Oxford Foundation, a Michigan nonprofit corporation charged by Mr. Snyder with overseeing proposed K-12 finance changes.
Specifically, the proposal allows students to "take a course, multiple courses, or the student's entire bundled education package from any public education district in the state."
Students could access online courses from across the state. The district providing the online course, not the district where the student lives, would get concurrent performance-based funding. State and locally raised student education funding would also "follow" individual students, the draft legislation states, instead of flowing to the geographically relevant district first.
Meanwhile, House Bill 6004 would establish the Education Achievement Authority, or EAA, which presently only exists as an interlocal agreement between Detroit public schools and Eastern Michigan University for 15 schools in the city, on a statewide basis. The EAA (similar in concept to Louisiana's Recovery School District) would act as a "reform district" for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.
And House Bill 5923 would allow for the creation of several new categories of schools (not traditional public or charter schools) sponsored by a variety of groups for a variety of purposes. They include single-gender schools, military residential schools, international cultural schools that would accept students from abroad through dual enrollment, and employer-sponsored schools where up to 75 percent of students could be employees' children. Unlike charters, for example, some alternative schools admitting out-of-state or international students could charge them tuition.
Both bills, which could be acted on during the state's "lame duck" legislative session that began Nov. 27, are sponsored by Rep. Lisa Lyons, the Republican chairwoman of the House education committee. (She did not respond to requests for comment.)
Freedom or Fetters?
Richard McLellan, a Lansing lawyer who has been involved in writing the House bill creating alternative public schools and the education finance overhaul, said the ability for students to select their courseload through various means had the greatest potential to change education, since it could largely operate within the existing K-12 system.
He dismissed arguments from state school board members and others that Mr. Snyder was attempting to overhaul K-12, but did say of student-centered financing: "It just makes sense to people who are of a more modern, business-oriented [mindset]." He also said the education finance change, in which districts would lose their traditional "ownership" of students, is essential to the proposed alternative schools.
Mr. Snyder hasn't expressed an official view yet of the proposed finance overhaul. But he has expressed interest in expanding the EAA, as House Bill 6004 does, and in a memo about the finance-reform act, Mr. McLellan wrote that House Bill 5923 amends the state's school code "to implement, in part, the Governor's Education Message."
"I think generally what we're getting out of Gov. Snyder is an attempt to break down some of the barriers that exist within the current public school system, whether that be barriers based on grade level … or whether that be geographical barriers," said Michael Van Beek, the education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland, Mich.-based think tank that supports school choice.
But critics argue the initiatives would topple the traditional K-12 system, reward privileged students, and disable democratic power over education.
They say that it is unclear exactly how schools would exit the proposed statewide reform district. They have also voiced concern that the governor's power to appoint the authority's board and its "school redesign officer" should belong to elected state and local school boards and the state education department.
In a Nov. 21 statement, House Democrats said the reform-district expansion proposal "permits school buildings operated and maintained by local taxpayers to be sold off or leased to for-profit schools against the will of the local communities, undermining local control of community schools and massively expanding state government."
Michigan schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in a Nov. 13 email to local superintendents that while statewide expansion of the EAA is in principle a good idea, he does not support, for example, automatically transferring schools into the authority if they have been in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three straight years, as the bill would require. Mr. Flanagan, who was appointed in 2005, prior to Gov. Snyder's election, said that it is his "constitutional duty" to fix failing schools, not a state redesign officer's.
The proposed education finance changes, meanwhile, would in practice benefit mostly privileged students best situated to take advantage of more education choices, not those students who need the most help, said Don Wotruba, the deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.
"We really think it starts creating this dynamic of those that can will, and those that can't get stuck with fewer resources," he said.
Vol. 32, Issue 13, Pages 25, 29Published in Print: December 5, 2012, as Fights Loom on Mich. K-12 Overhaul Bills