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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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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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Eleven percent increase for schools since 2009-10? Not so much.

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.

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Action alert: Don't let them take the public out of public ed!

Legislative leaders have committed to push through a long list of bills during this "lame duck" session, including two that could be devastating to public education as we know it.

I realize that sounds over-the-top, but take a look at the bills on the fast track:

  • House Bill 6004 makes a new state-wide school district, the Education Achievement Authority, which can take over the "bottom 5%" of schools, and perhaps others - while the local district has no say. The EAA is free to hand these schools over to for-profit charter management companies, and in fact it can charter new schools anywhere in the state (whether the schools there are failing or not). The EAA would be run by a board appointed by the Governor, and even the elected State Board of Education would have no say in its work.
  • House Bill 5923 would create a host of new forms of charter school, including selective admission schools, boarding schools, single-gender schools, and potential store-front schools operated by cultural organizations, businesses and other groups. Part of the mission given to the EAA in HB 6004 is to implement these provisions.

Find out more! Click below to read the full alert.

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End of the last illusions

Past commitments to school aid fade away

Updated with final conference report

None of the school aid budget proposals for next year offer significant help to our struggling local school districts. Overall funding is essentially flat, though the dollars are allocated differently in the various proposals. For a detailed breakdown of the final budget and the alternatives as passed by each chamber, please see this companion story.

Nevertheless, the budget bills do outline some major changes in how we fund our schools:

  • Use of the School Aid Fund to support community colleges and state universities is now a permanent feature (the final conference report includes intent language to change the name of the SAF to the “Comprehensive Education Fund”);
  • The commitment to maintaining the funding stream for K-12 education has been seriously eroded – for example, with the failure to replace earmarked revenue lost when the Michigan Business Tax was ended.
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By the numbers: the Snyder education budget

When is an increase not really an increase? When it’s an election year budget.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year was much anticipated, but its introduction was something of an anti-climax. In his budget presentation to the Legislature, the Governor described his proposals for K-12 education as a small but solid increase in funding. Other observers, looking closely at the numbers, begged to disagree. Regardless, the governor’s budget proposal makes the recent, much-reduced funding levels permanent. What little room there is for increased funding will be occupied by incentive payments: financial carrots intended to encourage what the governor calls “best practices.” Perhaps most important, it is clear that the Snyder Administration intends to lay to rest the idea that the School Aid Fund should be reserved for K-12 education.

UPDATE: This article describes the Governor’s “executive recommendation” for the budget; versions passed out of both the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees will be analyzed in a forthcoming article.

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