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Scrooged: A Lansing Parable

As Michigan Parents for Schools begins its tenth year, and since we're in the holiday season, I thought it might be a good moment for a retrospective on what has been done to public education over the last decade. Think of me as the "Ghost of Policy Present," offering to introduce you to the "Ghost of Legislation Past" and a tour down memory lane. Please stay for the tour.

With the turnover of people in Lansing, it is shocking what gets forgotten. But we, the people and parents of Michigan, should not forget. Instead, we must resolve to shape the future in the interest of our children.

The warning flare that fizzled

Our journey starts in the fall of 2006, though our state's experiment with school funding started more than a decade earlier. On the November 2006 ballot, a statewide proposal prompted many of us to start wondering how school funding worked - and why it wasn't working for our schools. The proposal required that per-pupil funding keep up with inflation, and that the state - rather than schools - be responsible for any further increases in the mandatory contributions to the retirement system. Seems tame today, but it was defeated with a well-orchestrated smear campaign that cast it as a "money grab" by those perennial villains, slothful teachers and their greedy unions. The proposal was far from perfect, but it deserved a better fate than the dustbin of history.

The next year, as the economy started to founder and Michigan Parents for Schools got organized, our state government discovered that sales tax collections (most of which go to schools) were sinking faster than a stone. Without action, our state constitution's balanced budget provisions would have required hundreds of millions of dollars to be taken back from schools near the end of the 2006-7 school year. After interminable negotiations, Lansing kicked the can down the road. Lawmakers "revalued" the state school retirement system's investment portfolio to the market peak for one day, allowing schools' mandatory contributions to be cut. They also "securitized" more of the tobacco settlement revenue, selling off future revenue for a pittance today. Lansing wearily declared victory - and then cut the budget for the next year.


In 2008-9, the bottom started to drop out. The two largest contributors to K-12 school funding - the sales and income taxes - continued their nosedive. In fact, there would have been no way out of huge mid-year cuts to schools in the spring of 2009 were it not for the Federal stimulus payments. Michigan used half of our $1.2 billion in stimulus money just to maintain the school budget for 2008-9. But the remainder of the Federal money had to stretch over several years, and further stalemates and school aid budget cuts ensued.

But in late 2009, things got really interesting. The discussion started to spread from money to how schools should be run. In early 2010, the Legislature hurriedly passed new laws that, among other things, would allow the state to take over the schools which did worst on the state test. These changes were made in hopes of getting a piece of the Federal Race to the Top funds, and we were stuck with the rushed changes even though we did not get a dime. Precisely what the state would do with these schools, no one bothered to figure out. Constant readers may remember that this "State Reform/Restructuring Office" was recently transferred by Gov. Snyder's executive order to the Dept. of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB). Because, when you want to help struggling schools, the first people you naturally think of are the bean counters and IT folks.

The cruelest cuts

The year 2010 ended with a bang - a new governor from a different party, and a new legislature heavily populated with nominees of this new thing called the "tea party." They had a lot of ideas about what to do with schools, and they started in right away. Gov. Snyder's first budget, for 2010-11, eliminated the Michigan Business Tax - and the $750 million a year it contributed to the School Aid Fund. A strategem which had been used once under Gov. Granholm was dusted off and made permanent: significant portions of the community college and state university budgets were now paid from the school aid pot. Schools faced huge cuts that year, even though the economy was improving.

By the summer of 2011, national "reformist" folks were being feted in Lansing - and their signature initiatives were being written into law. A "tenure reform" bill that in fact dramatically weakened teacher tenure was amended at the last minute to include a state teacher evaluation system and to demand that at least half of a teacher's evaluation be based on the state test scores of their students using a complex and doubtful statistical technique called "value added modeling." Details to be worked out later (as usual).

Choosing from someone else's menu

Fall 2011 brought us the "parent empowerment package," which neither empowered parents nor improved our public schools. The bills which passed did remove the cap on charter schools, much to the glee of the for-profit management companies. Limits on so-called "cyber charters" were also effectively removed, and a pending evaluation of their effectiveness was cancelled. They would continue to get the same funding per student as anyone else, even though we had no idea what their real costs were. But hey, they were being run by private for-profit firms, so it had to be good, right? (One of them was even co-founded by junk bond king, and convicted felon, Michael Milken. Huzzah!)

Provisions that did not survive included mandatory state-wide "schools of choice" (students can move, but only the lowest amount of money goes with them), permit all schools to contract-out teaching, and a "parent trigger" provision that was mostly symbolic in Michigan since charters don't need local permission to set up shop.

That next year brought us the "pension reform" bill which managed not to reduce the burden on schools while making employment at our public schools even less attractive for new hires. Yes, we'll save money - in 10-20 years. We also got an abortive effort to rewrite how school funding worked, by making education into a sort of "one from column A, two from column B" menu system served via technology. The "Oxford Foundation" report painted a bold new future where local schools would become a thing of the past. Only it turned out lots of people, from all parts of the state, really like their local schools. So the proposal was shelved until the time was ripe.

"Rabid" Duck

But 2012 will be best remembered for the tumultuous lame duck session after the midterm elections. On the education front, the biggest issue was the statewide expansion of the Education Achievement Authority, the entity which had only a few months before taken over 15 school buildings in Detroit. Despite the dubious nature of their curriculum, and the fact that they had zero track record, the Governor proposed that the EAA be made the keeper of the "state reform district" (see above) and just improve the heck out of our most vulnerable students. They also wanted to create an inventory of all unused school buildings statewide (which could be given to charters), and to allow the EAA to create new charters anywhere in the state - including ones set up by companies for employees, cultural groups, boarding schools, selective admission schools, and so on.

The expansive proposals from 2012 were fought to a standstill by a coalition of educators, parents and community leaders, and the bills finally died in 2013. But the EAA continued its "experiment" on some 10,000 Detroit school children - and continues to this day, despite dismal academic results, financial scandals, hair-raising revelations of internal misconduct and disorder, and the utter failure of its original computer-centric "curriculum."

A cornucopia of half-baked ideas

Since then, we've seen teacher evaluation (twice) that still enshrines state test scores; third grade reading (or retention), also twice, the latest of which is awaiting action in the Senate; and a resurgence of interest in what to do with "failing" schools. We've also gone off common core, gone back on it, dumped the MEAP test for the national Smarter Balanced, and then ditched that for a cobbled-together local alternative (which still succeeds in making everyone look worse). We've given our schools color codes, and tried to give them letter grades, again based solely on test scores of questionable reliability.

We've seen "increases" to school funding that weren't really increases, along with rewards for dubious "best practices" which appear and disappear again. We will get a study of how much it costs to provide an "adequate" education, but with no commitment to live up to that standard. There are proposals to gag school officials about the local millages they propose; to solve the "problem" of people openly carrying guns in schools by making them hide the guns (and coincidentally doing away with the idea of schools as weapon-free zones); and to cherry-pick which parts of the US Constitution we should celebrate. But none of these things were demanded by parents, and none of them would benefit our children's education. In the Lansing of today, that is pretty much beside the point.

What lies ahead

What about the "Ghost of Politics Future"? What will that specter have to show us? That, friends, is up to all of us. Nothing will change unless we stand up and demand it with one voice. Let's make it a New Year's resolution: we're going to insist on the schools, and the government, that we and our children deserve.

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