Education reform group forges voucher-like plan for Michigan
Thu, Apr 18
Friday, April 19, 2013
Education reform group -- calling itself "skunk works" -- developing plans for "value schools"
Lansing — A secret work group that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder has been meeting since December to develop a lower-cost model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers.
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a "skunk works" project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a "value school" that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.
The records show designers of the "value school" are in talks with Bay Mills Community College about opening a technology-centric charter school by August 2014. The school would seek to maximize the roughly $7,000 annual per-pupil funding regular schools get from taxpayers by applying "concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money."
Other records distributed to group members indicate they want to explore using fewer teachers and more instruction through long-distance video conferencing. Each "value school" student would receive a "Michigan Education Card" to pay for their "tuition" — similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor.
Students could use leftover money on the "EduCard" for high school Advanced Placement courses, music lessons, sport team fees, remedial education or cyber courses, according to an outline of the advisory team's agenda.
Snyder confirmed Thursday the existence of the work group, but told The News "there is not a specific outcome" for the project.
The Republican governor has urged changing how education is delivered by having tax dollars follow the student instead of locking them into a traditional classroom setting and school year.
"It wasn't a directive of the governor," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said, "but he's always interested in seeing what people can come up with" in education innovation.
The group's minutes indicate members planned to pitch their concept to Snyder this month ahead of the Governor's Education Summit on Monday in East Lansing.
But Snyder's chief information officer, David Behen, who leads the group, said it has experienced "a bunch of false starts" and is not ready.
"It's in line with what he wants to do, though," Behen said of the project's focus.
The initiative is "very unnerving" given the history of Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, a work group member, in pursuing vouchers, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, who was unaware of the "skunk works" project. A voucher system lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools — something prohibited by the state Constitution.
"This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings," Austin said. "That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions."
The panel's quiet proceedings began in mid-December after GOP lawmakers abandoned controversial legislation in the lame-duck session that would have allowed corporations, municipalities and cultural institutions to run charter schools.
McLellan helped draft the legislation and proposed sweeping changes in November to the way Michigan schools are funded. The plan was developed at Snyder's request by the Oxford Foundation, of which McLellan is a director, but has not been delivered to the governor.
Records obtained by The News show the education reform team got a $20,000 "initial grant" from the Oxford Foundation to assist "the Team in creating the technology intensive school." McLellan asked to be the group's treasurer, according to notes from a Jan. 10 meeting.
'Special kind of school'
The group consists of nearly 20 individuals, mostly from the information technology field, including Behen and the state's chief technology officer, Rod Davenport. The group includes employees from the software and tech companies Vectorform in Royal Oak, InfoReady in Ann Arbor and Billhighway in Troy. Also involved is Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group, a Grand Rapids firm that owns and operates West Michigan manufacturing companies.
One of the original members, Judy Wright of the accounting firm Plante & Moran, quit the project because of "potential client conflicts," said Dan Artman, the firm's spokesman. The accounting firm works for public school districts across the state.
The group had one educator, Paul Galbenski, an Oakland Schools business teacher and Michigan's 2011 Educator of the Year, but he left the group.
"It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system," Galbenski said. "That's when I started questioning my involvement."
Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the "skunk works" alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin's secret development of fighter planes during World War II.
In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use "alternative" email accounts. Records show Behen, Davenport and two other Department of Technology, Management and Budget employees have since used private email addresses to correspond.
A Department of Education official, Bruce Umpstead, joined the group after the private email directive and has used his government email, records show.
A different approach
Behen said he and the other four state employees are mostly working after-hours on the project with Friday evening and Saturday meetings.
"Why are we using private email addresses? Because it's just easier," Behen said. "There's nothing secret or anything about this."
McLellan said the other participants are justified in using private emails. "Well, they should," he said. "It's not a government project."
"Isn't a skunk works by definition unorganized, backroom?" he asked rhetorically.
Behen said he formed the group after meeting with McLellan and Rich Baird, a close adviser and friend of Snyder who called the governor's "transformation manager" on a staff list.
One memo crafting the group's mission said it wanted to avoid working with education consultants who "are so wedded to the education establishment that pays their bills and to the existing paradigm that an outside team of creative thinkers has a much better chance of succeeding."
Behen said he "purposely didn't put a bunch of teachers on (the panel)" to generate a different approach to delivering K-12 education through rapidly changing technology.
"Just like if I was going to do something new with law firms, I wouldn't bring a bunch of lawyers in," Behen said.
Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools at Bay Mills Community College, said the Upper Peninsula tribal college that charters 42 public school academies across the state is "very interested" in helping launch a "value school." Shannon has attended one of the group's meetings as has an official with the Educational Achievement Authority in Detroit, records show.
"We're very much into the online and digital type of oversight as well. Let's try something different," Shannon said.