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"A la carte" school funding plan ignores basic purpose of public ed

MIPFS reaction to the Oxford Foundation school funding proposal, 14 December 2012

Earlier this year, Gov. Snyder asked Lansing attorney and longtime political operative Richard McLellan to lead an effort to re-write the School Aid Act, the basic law that spells out how K-12 education is funded in Michigan. The approach that emerged was a radical change in direction, one that put the focus on students acquiring bits of knowledge from multiple “providers” rather than helping communities build and govern their local schools. More information on the proposal can be found at the Oxford Foundation web site. We’ll cover this proposal in more detail in an upcoming article.

Public comment was requested on the proposal. Our conclusion was that the proposed legislation would take Michigan in precisely the opposite direction of where we need to go.

Sadly, we have come to the conclusion that this effort to restructure school funding is based on fundamentally mistaken premises and does not reflect changes that would be in the best interest of our children or our state.

While there are numerous specific concerns about this proposal, others have discussed them in some detail. In our view, there are two critical problems with the underpinnings of this whole project:

1) There is a public purpose to education that goes beyond preparing young people for work. It involves helping our children to grow into thoughtful and responsible citizens, aware of their wider responsibilities and acting in the best interest of their communities.

This public purpose demands more than just public funding; it requires public governance. Our public schools are built and guided by our communities through the power to elect boards of education. The Oxford Foundation proposal foresees handing the bulk of responsibility for education to private entities which receive public funds. This is a mistake. Public education must be in the hands of the people whom it serves.

2) The proposals implicitly view education as the accumulation of discreet bits of knowledge. From that point of view, the “unbundling” of public education appears to make sense.

However, an excellent education is more than the sum of its parts. Education is about learning how to think, not just memorizing facts. A sound education prepares students to navigate a changing world, to apply ideas and observations from different domains to solve problems, to work collaboratively, and to find innovative answers to unexpected questions.

This kind of education cannot be constructed from bits and pieces offered by different “providers” in isolation from one another. This kind of education requires a coherent plan, structured relationships across different disciplines, and instruction which is focused on how to think rather than what to remember.

Our public schools face many challenges: poverty and the need to provide equitable (not just equal) educational opportunity; preparing students to navigate a rapidly changing world; and offering every child a rich education while resources dwindle. Our system of financing public education requires important changes in order to meet those challenges. However, this draft being offered to the Governor does not take us where we need to go.

Steven Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools



After submitting our reaction to the Oxford Foundation proposal (above), we received this response from Mr. Peter Ruddell, the Lansing attorney charged with doing most of the drafting of the School Aid Act rewrite under the direction of Richard McLellan. We print his question to us, and our response, below.

I rather suspect Mr. Ruddell knew the answer to his own question, and I’m disappointed that he took so narrow an approach. However, the larger point is not what text is in the draft bill but rather what kind of changes it will allow and how it will combine with other statutory changes to reshape public education.

Mr. Norton,

Thank you for your comments to the Michigan Education Finance Project. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to carefully consider the draft proposal. I was confused by one comment you made:

“The Oxford Foundation proposal foresees handing the bulk of responsibility for education to private entities which receive public funds.”

Can you please direct me to that specific language in the bill draft? I would like to make an effort to correct it. Thanks!

Peter B. Ruddell

Mr. Ruddell,

You are quite correct that no language in the draft bill specifically states that the bulk of responsibility for education would be shifted to private entities which receive public funds. Our observation on the draft is based on its overall effect and on our estimation of what kinds of institutions can be called “public” in the normal sense of the word. The sentence you quote was in the context of our objection to these changes based on the dramatic erosion of local public governance.

The heart of your proposal seems to lie in Section 6F of the draft bill. This section specifically separates the concepts of “enrollment” from “instruction.” Students may receive instruction, and thus credits, from any entity defined as a “district.” This includes public school academies and online schools organized as PSAs. Proportional funding would follow the student to each of these entities. “Enrollment” would become a term meaning responsibility for record-keeping rather than implying any particular instructional role.

First, on public entities: while we acknowledge that public school academies are declared in law to be “public” schools, we are unsure that they qualify as such under the normal usage of that word. The vast majority of PSAs are chartered by state universities, [see note] and in those cases there are a number of steps between the board of a PSA and any elected official (PSA board, charter school office, university president, university trustees, governor). When no one in the local community, even parents in the school itself, have any formal or statutory role in the governance of the school, it is difficult for us to call that school “public” even though it may receive public funds. The fact that some 80% of Michigan PSAs are entirely managed under contract by private, for-profit, entities dilutes the meaning of “public” even further. (This is in contrast to PSAs chartered by local educational agencies governed by local elected officials.)

In addition, companion legislation introduced in the most recent legislative session would have broadened the kinds of schools which could be considered PSAs, and would have codified in law a new statewide school district which had as part of its mission the expansion of the number and kind of PSAs in Michigan. This statewide district, the Education Achievement Authority as proposed in HB 6004 as introduced, was explicitly charged with increasing the variety of “public” schools, and in HB 5923 as introduced, the EAA is explicitly identified as an “authorizing body.” As proposed in HB 6004, the EAA would be governed by a board appointed by the Governor; no local communities would have authority to shape its decisions about new schools to be placed within their boundaries. When combined with the exclusion of the elected State Board of Education from effective oversight, we continue to believe that this kind of arrangement stretches the meaning of the word “public” so far that it becomes almost meaningless.

Second, on the overall effect of the bill: this broad change in the School Aid Act would hardly be required if the aim was to give students greater choice among programs offered by local, community governed, school districts. Because of the geographical nature of traditional local school districts, opportunities to receive instruction in multiple districts for different subjects are severely limited. Opportunities to attend schools outside of the district of one’s residence are already codified in law. The only real new opportunity provided by this bill for local school districts is to offer online programming in specific subjects to students who are residents of other districts. This option is already available because of local consortia.

Instead, the main impact would be to make it much easier for privately-managed, quasi-public, entities to attract select students – and the funding that goes with them – into their specialized programs. This would be particularly true for online programs. While this shift would certainly provide students and families with more options, we are not convinced that creating these new options so far out of the public realm is in the long-term best interests of our children or our communities. This is particularly true because, while the funding attached to each student would be equal, the actual cost of educating a student varies and is often subsidized by averaging the cost over many students. Until and unless school funding takes into consideration the fixed costs of maintaining a broad range of programming and the extra costs of educating at-risk and special education students which are not reimbursed from other sources, the proliferation of “options” will only serve to undermine our local, community governed, public schools.

I hope this addresses your question, and I would be happy to answer any other questions you may have. I am copying my reply to some members of the House and Senate Education committees so that they might reflect on these issues as well.


Steven Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools

Note: Of 277 PSAs operating in Michigan, 175 are chartered by state universities, 57 by intermediate and local educational agencies, and 45 by community colleges – of which 43 are chartered by one community college with a state-wide operating area but a locally-chosen governing body.

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