By Paul Egan and Chastity Pratt Dawsey
Detroit Free Press Staff Writers
LANSING — A draft bill prepared for Gov. Rick Snyder would fundamentally change K-12 education in Michigan, allowing students to choose school districts, make greater use of online learning and earn financial incentives of $2,500 per semester for completing high school early.
The proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act would replace the School Aid Act of 1979, the law that governs education funding, and provide for learning at “any time, any place, any way and at any pace,” said Richard McLellan, the Lansing attorney Snyder tapped to lead a rewrite of the law on how Michigan pays for education.
Snyder’s advisers said the primary objective for overhauling the education funding law is to create “career-ready citizens,” but educators who have waited for months to see the draft bill fear the worst: that the bill would destroy local control of schools, create a voucher system to benefit for-profit companies and worsen academic achievement.
The draft bill, expected to be introduced as part of Snyder’s budget presentation in February, was made available to the Free Press on Friday. It would:
• Remove district ownership of students, who would be permitted to get all or part of their education from any public district in the state that accepts them. Districts would retain the right to decide whether to participate in open enrollment.
• Allow students to access online learning from across the state, with the cost paid by the state. Districts that provide online courses would receive public funding based on performance.
• Provide for per-pupil funding to follow students to whichever districts they use to learn, with one student’s funding potentially split among multiple districts. To comply with the Michigan Constitution, public money would not follow students to private schools.
• Provide a framework for funding based on performance, once the proper assessment and testing mechanisms are in place.
• Give scholarships of $2,500 per semester, to a maximum of $10,000, to students who finish high school early.
• Encourage year-round schooling by having a 180-day school year spread over 12 months instead of nine, with a break of no more than two weeks.
A groundswell of opposition is rising from educators and school officials who have met with the drafters and seen summaries of the 302-page bill. The current funding law needs revision to address inadequacies and inequities in state aid and achievement, but the proposed changes lack quality controls, some school leaders said.
For instance, allowing parents to shop around and get different parts of their child’s education from different districts or online providers is troublesome, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education.
“This is a voucher system,” he said. “It’s absolutely destructive. It has nothing to do with improving quality. It’s loaded with the ideology of creating a new for-profit system for learning that will dismantle the schools we have.”
Don Wotruba, deputy director for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said that much of what the bill seeks to do — such as having online classes and school choice — is already under way.
“But it’s monitored,” he said. “The answer is not to say, ‘Here’s the money. Make your own choices.’ “
McLellan, who was an adviser to former Republican Gov. John Engler, said the bill would not create a voucher system, by which public money could be used to pay for private education.
He said the bill is designed to help implement what Snyder called for when he delivered a message on education in April 2011.
McLellan said he expects that the changes could take five years to implement. They would result in shifts in education money but wouldn’t require additional funds, he said.
The fact that so many students graduate without being ready for college shows that the present system is not working, he said.
Despite expanded opportunities for online learning, McLellan said he expects that 95% of students will continue to attend brick-and-mortar schools, which have social and educational benefits besides learning, such as athletic and other extracurricular activities.
The changes might result in school districts choosing to specialize in certain areas, such as science, he said.
“Right now, we require every school to do everything,” said McLellan.
Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, that county’s intermediate school district, said she is vehemently opposed to the proposal because it doesn’t address education for all students, such as those who are poor or require special education.
“Transportation won’t be mandated, so there are going to be a lot of kids who are not going to have a choice,” Markavitch said. “This is so un-American.”
Florida, Oregon, Minnesota and Utah are at the forefront of similar changes, but if this bill is implemented, along with other changes to education Snyder has championed, Michigan “would have the best framework for the kind of change we’re going to need for the 21st Century to have globally competitive schools in the information age,” McLellan said.
David Hecker, president of American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said he feared the proposal would weaken local control of schools if students can come from all over and erode the teaching ranks if districts lose enrollment to one another and online services.
The Oxford Foundation has funded the research and development of the draft bill. The foundation focuses on projects that “lessen the burdens of government,” according to its website.
Staton Berry, president of the Michigan Parent Teacher Association, said she hopes the governor and his advisers hold meetings “in every district in every city” to explain the proposed changes.
The draft bill is to be posted online Monday for public comment at oxfordfoundationmi.com, after which it will be revised and again presented to Snyder in mid-December, McLellan said.
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said that “the governor is looking forward to reviewing the report and recommendations about how we can move Michigan into the ‘any time, any place, any way, any pace’ model that the new economy demands.”
More Details: More about the Michigan Public Education Finance Act
The Michigan Public Education Finance Act is one of three proposals that, when considered together, could significantly change education in Michigan by allowing parents to shop around and use their child’s per-pupil state aid at more and new kinds of public schools.
A bill introduced in the state House in September would create nine new kinds of public schools, such as residential public schools and corporation-run and municipality-run schools.
Another House bill — and its companion in the Senate — establish a statute to govern the statewide Education Achievement Authority district.
Where to read the proposal
The proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act would replace the School Aid Act of 1979, the law that governs public education funding.
The draft bill is expected to be introduced as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget presentation in February. Starting Monday, the bill will be online for public comment at oxfordfoundationmi.com.