“I love empowering parents” – interim House Education chair Tom McMillin (R-Rochester) on passing SB 619
I am furious and disgusted.
Furious that once again, the education budgets now under discussion continue to strangulate our community-governed, local public schools. Disgusted that the raft of policies enacted in the last year which erode public education and public schools are described by their supporters as somehow “empowering parents.” Orwell couldn’t have done better.
Let’s review the last year in legislation, shall we?
- Last year, the governor’s budget proposal called for a $1 billion cut in education funding, most of that from K-12 public schools. Funding for community colleges and state universities was carved out of the School Aid Fund, all because the governor needed to help pay for a $1.7 billion tax cut to large business. Public schools got a partial reprieve when revenue to the School Aid Fund came in higher than expected – so the final cuts were only about half a billion dollars, with no promises made for the next year.
- Last summer, a package of bills described as “reforming” teacher tenure rules snuck in a huge change in teacher evaluation methods, including a requirement that standardized tests be used to evaluate all teachers – a huge boon to the testing industry, since these tests don’t yet exist for most grades and subjects. The administrative burden on local schools was multiplied, but no funds were added to help them do the job well. Apparently, cheap is better than good any day.
- In the fall, a package of bills was introduced that would uncap charter schools (most managed by for-profit firms), introduce “parent trigger” charters, and make other changes which encourage the growth of privately-managed charter alternatives but offered no help or resources to help improve local public schools. With all school funding distributed on a per-pupil basis, the end result is bleeding local schools dry (since the revenue loss from lower enrollment is greater than the savings).
- The first bill of that package, Senate Bill 618, removed the limits on charter schools, allowed state-wide networks of charters under one school board, and included the sweetener that school buildings owned by for-profit management firms would now be exempt from some property taxes.
- Another bill in that package, SB 619, dramatically loosens the limits on so-called “cyber” charter schools – entirely online charter schools operated by a handful of national, for profit, companies. Despite their lower cost structure, these virtual schools would get the same per-pupil funding as physical public schools. The operators of these schools have been the subject of scandals and investigations in other states because of poor performance, fudging enrollment numbers to maximize revenue from the state, and aggressively pumping up enrollment even among kids who should never be in that kind of program.
- The legislature’s best effort to “reform” the state teacher retirement system simply puts all the costs of fixing things on people who are already retired, people who are now working to teach our kids, and onto the kids themselves (by continuing to drain school district budgets). They simply won’t consider asking anyone else to help out, even though our schools have brought tremendous benefits to our entire state.
- Now we have the latest round of budget bills, which keep K-12 school funding essentially flat despite growth in the economy. Forcing public schools to share the School Aid Fund with colleges and universities has clearly become permanent (one bill actually changes the name of the SAF to reflect the new situation), and future growth in the Fund seems likely to be used to reduce transfers from the general budget rather than help K-12 schools. The bills include “performance” and “best practices” incentives which measure performance with test scores and call whatever political leaders want to force schools to do a “best practice.”
Frustrated yet? I sure am!
So, what to do?
We have a few ideas:
- Get informed. School funding in Michigan is a complex beast, but the devil is most often in the details. We at MIPFS are working to provide useful information for parent and citizens who want to understand how school policy and budgets are set in Lansing and how that shapes what happens at the local level. Modern education is also a complex undertaking, and it pays to understand what your local schools do and why, what they are required to do, and the limits within they must try to educate all our children. Find out what today’s classroom is like, from an adult perspective!
- Get involved. Our elected officials and education professionals need to hear from us. Teachers want parents to be active in the education of their children and to understand the opportunities and constraints schools work under. Local school boards need to know that parents are involved and engaged in a constructive way. Too often they feel forgotten by the community, unless someone is mad about something. Our legislators need to hear from citizens who value public education and are worried about the future of our local public schools. We’re not all looking out for number one; we care about the education of all children in our communities. We feel that our first educational duty, as a community, is to make sure our local schools offer a quality education. Choice and experimentation can add to that, but we have to take care of business, first. Be constructive. Do your homework. Become part of the solution!
- Get organized. By ourselves, we can make a difference. When we organize, we can make real, positive, change. Organize at the local level: get together with other parents and concerned citizens who want to improve and support our public schools. Help your local school district deal with the challenges it faces. Organize at the state level: get your local group to make its voice heard in Lansing. Legislators listen to their constituents, and they listen most to those who speak to them most often. Make sure they listen to you! Join state-level coalitions: reach out to other local groups, and work through umbrella organizations like MIPFS to join with people from across Michigan who care about their public schools. No one group, or one region, can push through real, positive change. We have to work together.
We can help
At MIPFS, part of our mission is helping parents and citizens to make their voice heard in the policy debates in Lansing. Another part of our mission is to provide information and support to local groups trying to get organized and active both in local school matters and in state-wide education policy debates. You are probably familiar with the former, and we are working to expand our efforts in the latter area. Let us know how we can help your group.
Together, we can make a difference!