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.
At a meeting in Lansing last Tuesday morning, staffers from the Center for Michigan presented the results of their year-long series of “community conversations” about education, held all around the state.
Three panels of experts, officials and education policy specialists met to talk about the key questions facing public education in Michigan. Among the take-aways:
From the community conversations –
- Michigan residents gave public schools a mixed review, though they were significantly more positive about their own schools than about Michigan public schools as a whole.
- The public is willing to pay more for public education, if the money will be used in a concrete way to improve our schools.
- Many key reform initiatives, like increasing educational “choice,” are not so high on the list of public priorities.
From the panels –
- There’s broad agreement that preschool available to every child is an important goal – but the way to pay for it is less clear.
- There’s agreement that it’s important for teachers get the schooling, job training, and job feedback they need to constantly improve, and that this task is harder than is often acknowledged.
- There are serious and deep disagreements about what kinds of policy measures are needed to improve public schools and how much they should cost.
But most noticeable, perhaps, was the extent to which political operatives representing the current policy direction were out of step with the concerns expressed by Michigan citizens.
“Education is not complicated,” say some lawmakers. Really?
We keep hearing the same confident claim in Lansing: the way to fix struggling schools is to get rid of the adults keeping the kids back – the school administrators, the teachers’ unions, the incompetent or corrupt school boards. Sweep them aside, replace them with business-like management and inexperienced but enthusiastic teachers, mix in a little technology, and you will see a miracle. If only it were so. But it is not.
The same blind beliefs are behind the bills to expand the Education Achievement Authority statewide after only three months. Not only that, but the changes were forced on the local community rather than being built with them. We cannot rely on management magic or quick fixes to help kids. We need solid strategies, with good track records, and the resources to implement them for the long term. When will we finally have that conversation in Michigan?
“Critics often say ‘the governor is trying to destroy public education as we know it,’ [Lansing attorney Richard] McLellan said. ‘That’s accurate.’”
Well, there it is. Doesn’t get much more “straight from the horse’s mouth” than coming from Lansing attorney and longtime political operative Richard McLellan. As a leader of the obscure Oxford Foundation, Mr. McLellan led the effort to devise a radically altered way of funding K-12 education for Gov. Snyder. He is also the author of the controversial Education Achievement Authority bill now in the legislature, as well as a proposal to dramatically increase the types of charter school that would receive public funding in Michigan. Some twelve years ago, he also spearheaded a constitutional amendment that would have permitted school vouchers in Michigan, which was defeated handily by the voters.
This radical package of proposals is in danger of being overlooked in the wake of today’s protests over a “right to work” bill and the use of pepper spray by police to subdue protesters visiting the Capitol to express their anger at that proposal.
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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.
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.
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
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.
The Muskegon Heights “model,” where education is turned over to charter schools and the local district remains as a shell to pay off the district’s debt, looks to be spreading to Highland Park as well. Is this an omen? What can we do?
Renowned education historian Diane Ravitch posted a story on her blog today about the Muskegon Heights and Highland Park stories, under the title Death Watch for Public Schools in Michigan.
Budget bill main provisions: final conference report compared to Governor's proposal and House and Senate versions