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Our story, Part II: Michigan's new "DEW" line

Rather than early warning of a nuclear strike, a package of bills now before the Michigan Senate aim to give early warning of a school district in financial distress - a "deficit early warning" system, if you will. But if our lawmakers truly want an early warning, they should simply ask the parents, teachers and staff of our schools what they have been forced to do by Michigan's persistent failure to invest in public education.

These bills escalate the penalties for districts in financial difficulty - and layer on reporting requirements that seem primarily aimed at placing blame on the locals - while completely failing to acknowledge that districts might be in distress because of the actions of the Legislature. The bill package continues the neat shift of blame: the Legislature and Governor make the decisions about school funding, but the responsibility for cutting programs and opportunities available to our children is left for local school boards to shoulder.

At base, there are two competing stories about what is happening to our schools, and one of them is driving these bills forward.

Our story, Part I: What really happened to school funding?

The election's over - can we talk reality now?

For a while, it was gratifying that school funding issues took center stage in the recent election for Michigan's governor. Unfortunately, the amount of spin and, well, dishonesty, left the situation more confusing than before. Now that the election is over, our choices about school funding need to be based on facts, not confusion.

Here are three basic facts that everyone needs to understand. The evidence for them is indisputable:

  • Starting with the 2012 fiscal year, the Governor and Legislature together took away roughly $1 billion that would normally have gone to K-12 education.
  • Schools took a major cut that first year, but they didn't have to: the tax cuts that year made the school cuts necessary.
  • The slow growth in school funding since that first year had nothing to do with the Governor or Legislature or any decisions they made. It was all automatic.

"Come again?" you might say. That's not what we were hearing from all the campaign commercials. But it's the reality we need to come to terms with. So let's go over it in a little more detail. (Go to article >>>)

A better way to help schools improve

Proposed legislation offers parent proposal to assist struggling schools

For years, the tag line of our messages to school advocates has been: "together, we can make a difference." Well, today is proof that together we have made a difference.

Legislation introduced today in the Michigan House of Representatives would enact the "Parent Proposal to Assist Struggling Schools," a policy recommendation developed by MIPFS after extensive consultations with parent group leaders, educators, policy experts, and advocates like you.

Education is not like toothpaste

Will market competition really improve education?

As the policy debates over education “reform” continue, some of the key underlying issues – competing worldviews – are starting to emerge clearly. The first public introduction, last July, of Governor Snyder’s advisory panel on the school funding law provided one perspective (see upcoming article). They view their charge as making sure money follows the student, and their work relies on the idea that competition among many different kinds of education “providers” will result in the best outcomes.

Another perspective was offered in a blog post by noted education historian Diane Ravitch. In her post, she reprinted a reader’s comment which decried the “reform” direction of treating schools like businesses. In this model, schools that succeed will continue; those which fail to attract students will be shut down. The comment emphasized the personal and community cost of closing schools and rending relationships.

These differing views nicely bracket one of the essential conflicts underlying the whole school “reform” debate. The conflict is this: what system produces better outcomes – community decision-making, or market competition? The answer, of course, depends a lot on what kind of outcome you are trying to get.

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School aid budget in pictures

What they're looking at in the smoke filled rooms

Now that the state's top economists have painted a somewhat less flush picture for next year, Legislative leaders are sitting down and hammering out final budget numbers. You won't get to watch - this is all happening in the proverbial "smoke-filled rooms" where the key players wheel and deal. So what are we likely to get? Our earlier articles outline the Governor's proposed school aid budget, and each house passed their own version. On the surface, the Governor's appeared to be the least generous, while the Senate trumpeted per pupil increases of up to $300 per pupil. But is everything as it seems? The fact that all three proposals spend nearly identical amounts of money should be our clue that the devil is in the details.

In our presentation on school funding to the State Board of Education (see upcoming article), we argued that legitimate school funding models would need to:

  • be fair, or equitable, to all participants (though that doesn't necessarily mean equal),
  • provide adequate resources for schools to do what we ask of them, and
  • put resources where they were most needed.

How do the budget proposals do on these scores? Not so well. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Now for another episode of "Lansing Knows Best!"

House Bill 4369 (the "EAA expansion bill") passed the state House of Representatives late last Thursday. After close to two hours of maneuvering and floor speeches, it passed by the thinnest of margins: 56-54. The bill now goes back to the Senate either for its approval or for more changes.

Why is this legislation so important - and so dangerous? This bill is not just about the EAA - in fact, the EAA is not even mentioned by name in the document (though it does allow the EAA to continue and expand). Its impact would be much more sweeping if it becomes law.

This legislation would enshrine state takeover as the best and (nearly) only way to "help" students in struggling schools. On top of that, the bill opens the door for many different organizations to run such schools on behalf of the state - they might be like the EAA (because that has gone so well), or they might be for-profit charter management companies. Both the Governor and the state Superintendent have said they want more "options" for state takeover. That should make us all feel much better.

Budget update: Legislature tosses schools a small bone

The Michigan State Legislature approved a final compromise education budget last week, making use of an estimated $140 million in unexpected estimated revenue to make sure that no district saw a net cut per pupil. But despite some of the large numbers being tossed around, the real effect on most students will be almost invisible.

Even after the infusion of an additional $140 million into the school aid budget, school districts will only see very small per-pupil funding increases – that fail to keep up with projected inflation – rather than the cuts previously in the budget. Gov. Snyder’s requested $65 million increase in state-funded preschool programs did receive full funding, however, and some other targeted funding slated for cuts was restored or cut by a lesser amount.

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School Aid budgets: no good news

Budgets as they emerged from each chamber are a mixed bag for schools

Both houses of the State Legislature passed their own versions of the K-12 School Aid budget this past week, and the political horse-trading can now begin. While the versions are quite similar, there are important differences that will affect how schools are funded and how much Michigan is able to expand its preschool programs targeted to low-income families. The total amount of proposed spending, however, does not exceed the Gov. Snyder's proposal, and in fact the Senate version comes in some $10 million lower than that.

Both versions of the budgets also include items that worry many supporters of local public education. Provisions requiring districts to permit and pay for students to take online courses from nearly any vendor are reminiscent of "Oxford report" proposals to "unbundle" public education, making local districts a thing of the past. Money earmarked for technology-driven student-centered instruction is seen as a "gift" to the financially troubled and controversial Education Achievement Authority, which the governor and legislative leaders hope to build into a state authority to take over "failing" schools.

As things stand, local school districts can expect a net cut of between $2 and $52 per pupil, though the details vary considerably. Final versions of the budget will not be ready until after the May consensus revenue estimation conference, when top state economists make tax revenue projections for the coming year.

Updated: List of State Board of Ed forums across MI

Members of the State Board of Education have scheduled more of their Education Forums across Michigan. Those who have attended the earlier ones say that they are very interesting and well worth making the time to go. Check out the list to find an upcoming event near you!

Wednesday, April 24, Traverse City, 5:30-7:30 pm.
Education Forum, West Middle School, 3950 Silver Lake Road, Traverse City, MI. Sponsored by League of Women Voters of Grand Traverse Area, and Traverse City Area Public Schools, Contact: Donna Hornberger, dsh_44 (at) yahoo.com

Newsbrief: EAA passes House; school aid budget moves

Just before going on their two week spring break, the legislature moved along two key pieces of education legislation.


Two critical bills moved forward in the state House over the last few weeks. They will both have important effects on our public schools, but in different ways:

  • The House Appropriations subcommittee on School Aid passed a revised version of the Governor’s school aid budget proposal that maintains the same level of spending but actually increases the effective per-pupil cut for most districts.
  • The House Education Committee reported out the EAA expansion bill on a mostly party-line vote, and the bill passed the full House just before the break after frantic lobbying by EAA supporters.

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