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Bills would turn Michigan into 'super choice' state

Michigan Board of Education President John Austin calls it a “nuclear bomb.”

National education reformer Diane Ravitch proclaims “Michigan is on its way to ending public education.”

Michigan Future Inc. President Lou Glazer warns that local school districts won’t survive.

Welcome to education reform in Michigan, circa 2012.

A coordinated series of draft and introduced bills could reshape public education in Michigan, giving students more options and re-routing taxpayer money.

Richard McLellan,* the Lansing attorney at the center of legislation, says critics should focus more on improving education than their debating points: “I think it will potentially drive real change for better learning. So, in that respect, if you believe schools are not doing a very good job today and you believe they do a better job afterward, then yes, it could be disruptive for some people’s careers.” He wishes, “People spent as much time analyzing the reforms as they spend with rhetoric."

State education leaders warn, however, of serious unintended consequences of the reforms that need to be addressed if the bills are to be passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder:

“Super choice”

* House Bill 6004 and Senate Bill 1358 expand the powers of the Educational Achievement Authority, which was established to run low-performing schools. The EAA is state-operated school district that this year is running 15 Detroit schools, with plans to expand next year to schools across the state scoring in the bottom 5 percent of all schools.

The legislation would codify an existing interlocal agreement in state law.

But the legislation goes beyond a legal cleanup. The EAA also could potentially take over schools beyond the state’s bottom 5 percent, open its own schools, hand over existing local public school buildings to charter schools, and exempt EAA schools from statewide assessment tests.

* House Bill 5923 would create nine new kinds of schools, including boarding schools, corporation-run schools and single-gender schools. For example, Compuware could open a school for the children of its employees and receive per-pupil funding for it.

Another variety of school – “globally competitive” – would be able to use a competitive admissions process and “recruit pupils from anywhere in the world.”

HB 5923 would strongly promote online classes, to the point that it appears to “uncap” the enrollment restrictions placed on cyberschools via charter school legislation adopted barely a year ago.

Even your local township government could bid to open a school under HB 5923. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, though McLellan told Bridge he authored it.

* A draft document, also crafted under McLellan, would revamp the state’s school funding law.

Today, the state sends a minimum of $6,900 to schools for each student enrolled. That money goes to one school, whether it is a traditional public school or a charter. The 302-page draft bill, summarized in an Oxford Foundation report commissioned by the governor, suggests that student aid be “unbundled” – that the $6,900 be split among various entities providing educational services to individual students.

Students who have enough credits to graduate from high school early would be given a $2,500 grant to continue their education at a Michigan college.

Reactions plentiful, less-than-laudatory

Michigan School Superintendent Mike Flanagan is in favor of reform, but thinks the state should slow down until we know how current reforms, such as lifting the cap on charters and increasing online education options, work.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said this new chapter in school reform is “asking some important questions” that will potentially provide “a richer experience for students.”

However, he said, the administrative infrastructure required to allow funding to follow student activities, perhaps over multiple districts, could prove to be a challenge.

“The essence here is, (the bill is) responding to some things that are happening in education, and let’s get busy doing these things. Is it messy to get there? Yes, but that’s work that needs to be done.

“(But), to flip a switch and do this in 12 months? We may be ahead of ourselves,” Quisenberry said.

Cindy Schumacher, executive director of the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University – the state’s largest charter authorizer – released a statement that read, in part:

“We support the ‘Any Time, Any Place, Any Way and Any Pace’ model of education articulated by Governor Snyder as well as his emphasis on performance funding based on individual student growth. ... Our continued focus will be to ensure that choice, accountability and improved academic performance are the goals of our system of schools. While we continue working to prepare our students academically for success in college, work and life, it is encouraging to see these priorities expanded in Michigan’s broader public education space.”

In the Upper Peninsula, Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools for Bay Mills Community College, is cautiously optimistic. Bay Mills serves a Native American population, and is the authorizer for a number of charters serving low-income populations and minority populations around the state.

“I’ve heard this called the debit-card system,” said Shannon. “A lot has to be fleshed out, (but) it’s potentially good for parents and students.”

 What's the dispute about?

Two of the most controversial elements are:

* A la carte academics – the ability for students to take classes almost anywhere they want, and have the state’s student aid follow them. Some education leaders worry that this concept will undermine traditional neighborhood schools by further eroding state funding. If a student takes world history at the neighboring charter school and a foreign language online, school aid would be split between providers.

But school aid pays for more than teacher salaries. “K-12 schools base their business model on an extremely high share of all kids,” explained Glazer, president of Michigan Future, a nonprofit education advocacy organization. “That allows them to subsidize high cost programming including high school sports and band with the surplus generated by low-cost kids.”

Margaret Trimer-Hartley*, superintendent of University Prep Math and Science charter schools in Detroit, points out that some programs, such as high school science courses, are costly. Will every school continue to support a full host of science courses if some of their students are going to other schools?

Such a system makes sense in the business world, but may not translate well to K-12 education, says Livingston Educational Service Agency Superintendent Dave Campbell.

“When a kid is in three different buildings, “it increases the chances of kids falling through the cracks,” Campbell said. “Most kids need a strong community of adults who care enough about them to hold them accountable.” Dividing time between various schools and online courses “fragments support. It’s not what most teen-agers need – they need structure.”

* “Super choice” – the broadening of charters and online schools. House Bill 5923 allows a lot more groups to open charter schools, from businesses to municipalities. Charters could be single-sex, and charters wouldn’t have to accept all students who come to their door. The bill also allows the creation of more online schools.

Trimer-Hartley argues that urban areas already have a “saturated market.” She worries that more options will foster a “Walmart-ization of the education system: low costs with no customer loyalty.”

Going beyond ‘A’ effort

Michigan already has one of the richest school-choice environments in the nation, earning an “A” from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Education Reform. Michigan moved up to an “A” from a “B” in 2011.

The CER also ranks Michigan 11th in the nation for “parent power.” Its individual assessment of the state’s school-choice environment noted: “Michigan is prohibited from offering private school choices, but it makes up for that in its robust charter law which is expansive and responsive to consumers. A high number of digital learning opportunities and good teacher quality measures keep districts on their toes. And now failing school districts are finding new partners to manage their schools. All of these developments are plusses for parents.”

The CER ranked Michigan’s charter-school law, revised in 2011, fifth-strongest in the nation.

But choice’s academic record is mixed. Some charter schools have records of high achievement among their students; some are among the state’s worst schools. “If we do this, we need to make sure we don’t get more crap charters,” Austin said. “We need better schools.”

Michigan’s current cyber school – the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy – has a spotty academic record. Low-income students scored worse on 8th grade math than similar students in Detroit, or Grand Rapids; among 11th grade students at the cyber school, not one student scored at a proficient level in math.

Because of that record, some educators worry about expanding online options. “Before we charge to create more, shouldn’t we know if what we’re doing now works?” asked Austin. “What you don’t want are signs reading “Free education – call 1-800.”

The Oxford Foundation is accepting public comment on its proposal until Dec. 14. The report will be shipped to Snyder in January, at which point the governor will decide whether to incorporate the reform measures into his 2013 budget.

A spokesman for Snyder stated via email Monday that, "While the governor is reserving comment on the Oxford Foundation proposal until he gets the final draft at the
end of the year, he is looking forward to reviewing the proposal and the associated legislation when they get to his desk."

The other measures, however, are before the Legislature and lawmakers can act on them before year’s end – should they so choose.

“We know if the Legislature adopts this, the superintendents will be busy figuring out how to make this work,” McLellan said. “We know that whatever we write will need to be changed. We’re trying to provide a concept with flexibility.”

What is McLellan’s vision for Michigan if the reforms become law? “I’d hope that we’d find that kids in third grade could actually read,” he said bluntly. “We want to be on our way to having a literate Michigan population. We can’t say that today.”

*Trimer-Hartley and McLellan are members of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

Senior Writer Ron French contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.


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