School Choice & Charters

A ‘Secret Plan’ to Completely Change Michigan Public Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 22, 2013 2 min read
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With spring in the air, a plan to transform Michigan’s education system based on the equivalent of a K-12 debit card is beginning to blossom, under the care of a group that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder.

At the end of last year, I wrote about the Republican governor’s keen interest in overhauling the Great Lake State’s public schools and some early proposals generated by the Oxford Foundation at his request. The slogan driving the brainstorming was “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, and Any Pace,” for K-12. It would essentially strip districts’ ability to “own” students by acting as the “home district” for students and thus assume all the associated per-student funding. The plan also touched on the idea of performance funding for schools, but didn’t get into too many details on that.

The Detroit News story published on April 19 stating that the group is “working in secret,” which appears to be true in the sense that it hasn’t held public hearings or taken vast amounts of input from various stakeholders. But Snyder’s interest in the subject and the basic details of what he wants have been well understood for some time. You will also see that Richard McLellan, a Michigan attorney who worked on the education plans the Oxford Foundation released last December, and who I interviewed for my story at the time, is also involved in the group now working on the K-12 overhaul. Snyder’s office said that there’s nothing concrete to discuss yet and that he isn’t really overseeing this specific effort, but it’s hard not to think he’s intrigued by it.

What the Detroit News story highlights that’s interesting is that one of the pillars of the plan now taking shape is the emphasis on low per-student costs for the state. Each student would be handed a “Michigan Education Card” to cover the cost of “tuition.” The plan envisions a $5,000-per-student cost, a low price tag achieved by (potentially) using fewer teachers and increasing the use of video conferences for distance learning, among other options. Anything left on the card after tuition costs could be used by the students on Advanced Placement fees and other academic expenses.

But that $5,000 figure would be a tremendous nosedive from the present situation—right now the per-student spending in Michigan is roughly $10,650 per student. Critics of such plans say they provide only the illusion of choice and freedom, while in fact they strengthen barriers to K-12 quality based on wealth gaps. And Michigan Board of Education President John Austin told the paper that a primary, unspoken goal of the plan is to blow up the educational establishment of not only districts, but superintendents and teachers’ unions as well. He apparently also called the effort a “skunk works” project, a not-very-flattering reference to its secretive nature.

“The information uncovered from these secretive meetings has confirmed what we’ve feared all along, that this governor’s focus is not on what’s best for Michigan’s people or our kids, but instead on helping out-of-state special interests profit off of them,” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a statement quoted by the News.

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