Thursday, March 7, 2013

Michigan Parents for Schools Legislative Update

Time to move in a new direction
Dear Friends,

After a welcome break over the holidays, our Legislature is back at work. Unfortunately, these days, that's not a good thing.

In this issue:
  • School Aid Budget - Magical numbers from the CPA-in-chief
  • EAA - We know how to turn schools around. Trust us.
  • A la carte school funding proposal not so popular on the menu
  • A parents' vision for public education

When is an increase really a cut? When it's the school budget!

First off, Governor Snyder introduced his proposed state budget for fiscal year 2013-14 early last month. As part of that, he claimed that he was increasing education spending by 2% Relief for our schools? Not exactly.

In fact, every school district will see a cut of at least $2 per pupil, and as much as $32 per pupil, under the governor's plan compared to what was available last year. The governor tries to claim that this is an increase, because some of last year's money was "one time." Well, "one time" or not, it was available for schools to use for educating students last year, and now there will be less. Gov. Snyder also tries to camouflage a cut as an increase by taking money out of the pension reform "cookie jar" that he had diverted money into over the last two years. In the private sector, they call these kinds of antics "earnings management."

The only bright spot is that the Snyder budget proposes a substantial increase in the number of preschool slots open to low-income children. It's a start, but we can certainly do more. And we should.

EAA, again?

The Education Achievement Authority bill, which was stymied in the frantic weeks of last year's lame duck session, is almost certain to make a second appearance. Gov. Snyder has announced that it's his top education priority, and he's had his advisers out singing its praises (for instance, at the Center for Michigan conference on education last month, which we wrote about here.)

The EAA also generously hosted a field trip for friendly legislators, giving them a guided tour of a couple of EAA schools with lots of one-on-one time with key officials. No lobbying going on there.

The smart money has it that a new bill will probably look like the last-ditch compromise from December. It wasn't as bad as the original, but that still doesn't make it good law. The "lite" version still made the EAA a state-wide school district, but limited it to overseeing 50 schools at one time and limited its authority to charter new schools to a 2-mile radius around EAA takeover schools (or in districts run by an emergency manager). There were also clearer standards for schools entering, and exiting, the EAA.

MIPFS is absolutely in favor of bringing extra resources to bear to help struggling schools, but we do not believe the EAA is the way to do it. The bill still smacked of empire-building rather than helping schools. Why on earth would you need to authorize a brand new charter within 2 miles of a school you are supposed to be "turning around"?

We also don't believe that state takeovers are the way to help struggling schools and create lasting change. Instead, the state should be working with the local community and school staff to make lasting changes in the schools and the communities they serve. That's not what the EAA is all about.

Finally, the curriculum used by the EAA - what they do in the classroom - is still experimental and doesn't seem to have been used anywhere else. Why should we be experimenting on any child, unless there is a voluntary agreement to try something new? And why should we be expanding a system that so far has a track record of one semester? None of this makes any sense.

"Oxford report": new name, same bad plan

Now billed as the "Public Education Finance Act Project", the proposal formerly known as the Oxford Foundation report is another bad proposal that won't go away. Authors of the proposal have been in the press touting its merits, not always diplomatically. Principal drafter Peter Ruddell participated in that Center for Michigan conference and got a very cool reception. A recent editorial he wrote keeps up the drum beat. Anyone who disagrees with their proposal is simply trying to defend the status quo and stop change, so the argument goes.

On the other hand, Gov. Snyder put off consideration of the proposal until late summer after an early draft was greeted with much skepticism. None of the provisions made it into the executive budget proposal for next year, as had originally been planned. This has apparently made project leader Richard McLellan grumpy; according to MIRS News he promised to "use some of [his opponents'] own research and stick it down their throat." The ultimate fate of the proposal is uncertain, but will not likely disappear without a fight.

If not this, then what? How about something completely different.

While working to block damaging legislation last term, MIPFS and other public school advocates were often asked what our alternative would be. Of course, it's hard to get alternatives any attention when the current "reform" juggernaut is filling the airwaves.

However, MIPFS, working with local parent groups from around Michigan and other people who care about public education, has been working on just such a positive proposal. We're just about ready to roll it out, but I'll give you a sneak peek. Our proposals focus on helping students rather than measuring them; providing resources and support for schools rather than punishing them; and promoting community governance and accountability to the public rather than state takeovers and privatization. Totally off-the-wall thinking, I know. But maybe, just maybe, it might actually help our children in the long run.

Steven Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools