We are clearly living in interesting times. Last week's election results were completely unanticipated by polls and most pundits. As a result, this is a time of great uncertainty as we all strive to understand where events are likely to take us.
- Washington turmoil
- Upcoming issues in Lansing
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While many issues have been grabbing headlines in the last few days, our responsibility is to monitor education policy and that is why I am writing you today.
Many of Mr. Trump's policy positions have been vague at best, and there is not very much to go on in predicting education policy. While there is much talk about possible candidates for Secretary of Education, there is little hard information. At the same time, there is also talk of dismantling the US Dept. of Education, which would make the point moot but would also be very daunting to accomplish. Our one clue is a statement in a policy speech in late October:
Next, I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration: ...School Choice And Education Opportunity Act. Redirects education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice. Ends common core, brings education supervision to local communities....
How more control is to be passed to local communities while also mandating vouchers is unclear. In any case, we expect that Congress, having just passed the new ESSA act after much struggle, may not be eager to revisit the topic right away. Federal rule-making under ESSA may shift dramatically, however. More on this as the situation develops.
Contrary to many predictions, the balance of power in the state House of Representatives did not change, though there will be many new faces in January. This may mean that the "lame duck" session (the few weeks after the election before year's end) is less frantic than it was four years ago, when, for instance, the EAA expansion bills were being aggressively pushed.
Two topics may come up in lame duck, one of them being a long-simmering proposal to replace the state school employee retirement plan (MPSERS) with individual 401k-type accounts. For the last few years, new hires have been covered by a hybrid system (part pension, part 401k, with no retirement health benefits). However, the proposal to end MPSERS entirely is much more sweeping and would involve huge costs as current employees and schools no longer paid into the system. We are very concerned about this proposal, because we believe it would seriously undercut our top priority of attracting and retaining excellent teachers in all our schools (and further suppress interest in the profession in our state).
The other potential issue is raised by a package of bills just introduced by Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton). These bills (SB 1165-1169) would create a "Parental Choice In Education Program," replacing the current school funding system with "education savings accounts" for each pupil, funded primarily with tax dollars, which they would use to purchase instructional services from "authorized providers."
This proposal closely mirrors the "Oxford Foundation" and "skunk works" proposals from a few years ago, both of which were designed to make school districts a thing of the past and to encourage purchases of online courses from various providers.
We are also very concerned about these proposals, for the same reasons we opposed the Oxford and skunk works plans. Sen. Colbeck's plan has an extra wrinkle: it would also capture all local operating, special education, hold harmless, enhancement, and vocational millages and add these to the overall pot to be distributed equally to all students. What happens after those millages start to lapse at the local level is anyone's guess. Finally, the bills would allow parents to contribute to the savings accounts, essentially allowing families with means to "purchase" a broader, enriched education for their children while others make do with the basics. We have only just started going through the bills carefully, but what we have read so far is truly alarming.