It's hard to talk about education these days without hearing the word "accountability" in nearly every sentence. Teachers should be accountable, administrators should be accountable, and school officials should be accountable. There is no question that the education of our children is a top priority and, yes, the people doing that job should be accountable.
Strange, then, that our state government's one and only strategy to address persistently struggling schools and districts would abandon accountability entirely. Children are already paying the price.
Gov. Rick Snyder claims that that he and his administration have been investing in kids, that there has been “no reduction” in state support for K-12 education.
He says that “it’s not about partisanship, let’s just do the right thing.” We agree with those sentiments: support for strong, community-governed public education should not be a partisan issue, and we should definitely “do the right thing.” We’re still waiting for the governor to propose, and the legislature to pass, a budget that does right by the children of Michigan.
Gov. Snyder then goes on to say that people who argue he’s been cutting K-12 education “have fact issues.” But it is the governor’s facts which need a second look.
Bottom line: Gov. Snyder’s budgets took advantage of the depth of the recession to dig the hole even deeper in the first year to accomplish business tax cuts and other changes, allowing the weak recovery in subsequent years to look much better by comparison – but only if you ignore what things were like before or what things might have been like today had different choices been made. Between the end of earmarked school aid revenue from the Michigan Business Tax, and the diversion of funds to pay for colleges and universities, K-12 schools lost over $1.1 billion, or nearly $740 per pupil, each year because of the changes Gov. Snyder pushed through in 2011.
MIPFS and affiliated groups’ statement on the latest “skunk works” revelations
The evidence is piling up that the Snyder administration was closely involved in the effort to construct an alternative “education” system whose top priority is to minimize public school costs, not improve education. According to emails obtained by the Detroit News, top advisers to Gov. Snyder helped put the so-called “skunk works” group together or approved of its creation as early as September 2012.
From the parent perspective, one of the most disturbing discoveries was a statement by Gov. Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore. “Frankly, there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing the education community in a fratz,” Muchmore wrote not long after the “skunk works” story first broke.
Thousands of parents, educators, and other concerned citizens who care about quality public education expressed their outrage at the secrecy and narrow vision of the “skunk works” project. Since when did we become the enemy? What kind of distorted lens must members of the Snyder administration be using that they see in concerned parents an opponent to be overcome rather than a constituency to be heard?
We released this open letter on the occasion of US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s visit to southeast Michigan. Sec. Duncan visited two schools in Detroit, one of them an EAA school, and the Perry Child Development Center in Ypsilanti. Our letter points out the conflict between the educational values Sec. Duncan has espoused, and which are the foundation of Perry’s High/Scope model, and the urgent direction of education policy in Michigan.
Open Letter to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Dear Secretary Duncan,
On behalf of Michigan parents and others concerned about public education here, I would like to welcome you to our state. Michigan is home to some of the best ideas and programs in education as well as some of the most serious challenges our schools, and communities, face. We welcome your effort to learn more about the hopes we cherish and the obstacles we confront in our local efforts to educate our children.
Unfortunately, I fear that your tour may leave you with an incorrect impression of what is in fact happening in our state. The current direction of state policy is not to offer an excellent education to all children. Instead, key Michigan policy makers have adopted an extremely narrow and barren notion of “education” and have focused on how to deliver it at the lowest cost possible. These proposals take us in precisely the wrong direction.
In his budget presentation to the State Legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder billed the education portion as making an investment in Michigan. He described increased spending on preschool – a good thing – and efforts to limit the costs of the public school employee pension system – the burden of which falls mostly on current and future retirees. But he also claimed that the state government had increased spending on K-12 education by 11% over the last four years, including his new proposal. He even had a slide to “illustrate” the point.
Now, with the Governor’s focus on being a “nerd,” and the budget materials all identifying him as a Certified Public Accountant as well as Governor, you might think that all these numbers pretty much reflect reality. But as we have learned over the last decade, to our cost, financial numbers can be “massaged” to tell different stories depending on the audience.
Gov. Snyder, CPA, was engaged in a litte bit of what they call “earnings management.” A closer look at K-12 spending shows a different, and more accurate, picture. We need to keep the true picture in mind as we discuss the performance of our public schools.
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.
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.
“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.
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.