As some take aim at school choice, Legislature is unlikely to agree

The latest round in the education wars may be about to start in the Michigan Legislature in a fight over Michigan’s 20-year-old school choice system.

For decades, Detroit had only the Detroit Public Schools to provide public school education to Detroit residents. It served as a well-respected urban district until its dramatic financial and academic decline. School officials, teacher unions, community groups and many parents continued efforts to maintain the DPS as the monopoly public school provider.

That all changed in 1993 when Michigan’s massive Proposal A statewide education reforms introduced choice and competition in public education, including:

  • Authorizing charter public schools to compete with DPS.
  • Allowing Detroit residents to attend adjacent districts.
  • Creating a “per-pupil allowance,” permitting a pupil to take state school operating funds to the school the pupil selects.

The Michigan Legislature, constitutionally charged with establishing the public school system, set forth its parent-centric choice policy in the Revised School Code:

“It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children. The public schools of this state serve the needs of the pupils by cooperating with the pupil's parents and legal guardians to develop the pupil's intellectual capabilities and vocational skills in a safe and positive environment.”

This was all designed to improve educational outcomes and to increase educational options for pupils and parents. In Detroit, a robust system of charter schools expanded, which now enroll half of Detroit’s public school students.

But school choice in Detroit has not worked as originally intended. DPS is now widely recognized as an unfixable entity. Even more disturbing is the fact that the system of charter schools in Detroit has not turned the corner on student achievement.

As Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, has said, “The city’s education system as a whole is failing its students.”

The state Board of Education found last December that Michigan is now in the bottom tier of states in academic achievement, and other states are racing past us in improving student performance.

If Proposal A school choice was an education revolution, the counterrevolution is about to start. The Detroit education elites seem to have coalesced around a series of concepts that will restore monopoly control over Detroit schools to a single official or a selected group of leaders.

Leading the campaign is Excellent Schools Detroit, a private organization dedicated to improving school outcomes in Detroit. The political clout of the effort is reflected in its organization of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, self-defined as a “diverse cross-section of leaders representing Detroit’s education, civic, philanthropic, business, religious and community sectors.”

Excellent Schools Detroit is clear in its desire to end school choice by blaming the present “fractured system, which creates instability, hyper-competition, and uneven authorizing” for Detroit’s failing schools. Its report feeds the anti-charter mood by claiming “bad actors in the charter school systems can profit from behaving in a predatory way.”

Their goal: “Assign one person or office to become the traffic controller – one person who will be publicly accountable for managing the portfolio of school systems and overseeing the quality of the entire scope of schools in the city.”

We have seen what happened when we have one group – the DPS – managing all the schools in Detroit.

The buzz phrase to watch is “fragmented school systems.” The goal is to replace a school choice model with a centralized, top-down command and control system not unlike to old DPS monopoly model. Centralized enrollment and centralized transportation would be linked to a monopoly authorizer of schools, reducing or eliminating diversity of schools and options for parents.

Philanthropist Eli Broad, a former Detroiter and strong proponent of improving Detroit schools, is quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business as supporting a plan “which would coordinate enrollment, safety, transportation and other common infrastructure for all public schools in the city, including charters.”

The Democratic majority on the State Board of Education supports eliminating school choice by imposing a “certificate of need” process in Detroit “where charters and choice making are most prevalent.”

Excellent Schools Detroit CEO Dan Varner wants a single official to play more of a central role in education, with an ability to open and close schools (including charters). This approach is directly contrary to existing state policy giving public universities a role in opening and closing diverse charter schools.

The Detroit education elites focusing on eliminating real school choice may face a challenge in the Michigan Legislature. Many leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate have been strong supporters of parent choice and charter schools. And they represent a statewide system of state public universities charged by the Legislature with authorizing charter schools throughout the state, including Detroit.

The anti-choice forces would do to remember that the Michigan Supreme Court, in upholding Michigan’s charter school law, stated:

“The Legislature has had the task of defining the form and the institutional structure through which public education is delivered in Michigan since the time Michigan became a state.”

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Fri, 01/23/2015 - 1:00pm
Remember, this author was in charge of Snyder's "skunk works" project which was secretly coming up with a plan to "unbundle" community schools during the governor's first term. For us in good school districts it would have lead to all sorts of unnecessary problems and plummeting property values. When this guy talks about education beware!
Fri, 01/23/2015 - 1:36pm
“Michigan’s massive Proposal A statewide education reforms” from 1993 were a joke. “The Michigan Legislature, constitutionally charged with establishing the public school system, set forth its parent-centric choice policy in the Revised School Code: It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children.” Parent-Centric??? Really??? Parents can ONLY choose “public schools” even though it is their natural, fundamental right to select what they feel is the best education for their children. So even though there may be an excellent Evangelical, or Catholic grade school two blocks away, they can’t choose that school (unless they want to pay a separate tuition fee which is often less than the state run public schools get per student) because it is not a “public school” staffed by high-paid, MEA Unionized teachers, even though it is fully accredited and probably highly ranked. It’s always all about “choice” with liberals – right up until the choice is religion over secularism.
Devil's advocate
Sat, 01/24/2015 - 3:06pm
So you want taxpayers to further subsidize a religious education? How about other religions you don't like? How about a religious school founded by a group you and I would call a cult? Parents already get a tax break when they "donate" to the church to get cheaper tuition at the grade school. The donation is then tax deductible.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:50pm
I have no problem with the state providing funding to any accredited faith-based school. You might want to check out this article It appears that most public schools at one time in the U.S. were faith-based and received state support. Also, the only way parents receive a tax break for tuition is if the tuition is rolled into a mandatory 10% tithe the parents donate to the Church. Lutheran schools are supported in this manner but most others (Catholic schools, for instance) are not.
Wallace Kent
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 9:46pm
So you have no problem funding Islamic schools that meet academic standards? Druid schools? The possibilities go on and on. I have no problem with parochial education, but I wholeheartedly believe tat it violates the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state to contribute public monies to the support of such schools, whether by vouchers or in any other way.
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 3:49pm
Correct. If Christian schools receive funding so should other faith-based schools. The number of Muslims in the U.S. is pretty small and as long as a Muslim school is fully accredited -- teaching the history of the U.S. and so forth -- it should also be funded. But I also think that immigration reform is needed to maintain the Judeo-Christian culture in the U.S. The concept of separation of church and state, as envisioned by our Founding Fathers, has been thoroughly twisted by secular progressives. Our Founding Fathers only wanted to insure that no one religion would be favored over another or adopted as a national religion. Read the article that I provided the link to. The Founders were good Protestants who firmly believed that religion was important to the Democratic Republic they had set up.
Wed, 01/27/2016 - 8:31pm
Where is it constitutionally mandated for "a seperation of church and state." There is no such language in our Constitution. As a teacher If that is what you teach it is no wonder we have students coming to our universities with no clue as to our founding and the constitution. I hope you just misspoke and teach the proper wording then discuss the many nuances over the ages.
Charles Richards
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 5:48pm
Children are the children of parents, not the state. Parents are best qualified to look after them.
David L. Richards
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:12am
Charles R, then I assume you do not believe in mandatory education? If you want to give parents 100% control, then they should decide if their kids should be educated at all.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:17pm
So your answer is to have schools staffed with low paid, non MEA unionized teacher's? That will increase student achievement and outcomes how????
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:55pm
Most teachers at private and faith-based schools are non-union, and the majority of these schools have better rankings and test scores than do public schools. This is one of the reasons the MEA, NEA and AFT do not want public funds going to private or faith-based schools. It will further erode their membership.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 2:36pm
Steve is drunk on the kool-aid served by his pro MEA background. Those who are open to the light see that union and good or high pay seems to be a right of those who educate, even when all available metrics show failing performances of public school system and those non-union teachers completely kicking butt with in most cases 1/3rd less money.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 7:42pm
MEA is/are in good districts around here such as Troy, Birmingham, GP, and Novi and in struggling places like Pontiac. I don't think the union is the reason for the huge disparity. You might want to look for something else before you blame union teachers. And if you think private and public schools have the same student bodies and have to follow the same playing rules (special education laws comes to mind) you need to do some more research before spouting off.
Charles Richards
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 5:45pm
The state constitution prohibits religious schools from receiving state money.
Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:09pm
"Unlikely to agree" is a hilarious understatement. Bottom line is everything tried up to now has been a failure, just blame the other side and keep on doing what isn't working.
Fri, 01/23/2015 - 9:12pm
Another power play by adults who justify their positioning on the backs of the students claiming it is about education. The issue is learning. The reality is that if the student isn't interested in learning no matter who or how the schools are operated the student won't learn. Who is talking about learning, asking the students, working to understand how and why students succeed?
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:20pm
Spot on Duane!!! There also needs to be a parent involvement component as well. A students "attitude" toward education starts in the home.
Martha Toth
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 10:16am
You say that "school choice in Detroit has not worked as originally intended.... The system of charter schools in Detroit has not turned the corner on student achievement.... Michigan is now in the bottom tier of states in academic achievement, and other states are racing past us in improving student performance." So, when do we admit that twenty years -- a generation -- of choice and charters has actually made things worse?
Charles Richards
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 5:52pm
Stanford University did a study in 2013 that, overall, gave Michigan's charter schools good marks.
james mckimmy
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 12:51pm
list and we study used very selective material to reach a conclusion yet was not reflect of all the overall system.
Donna Anuskiewicz
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 11:12am
Winston Churchill, a consummate politician, once said, "Education is too important to be left solely to politicians." We would be wise his remark in mind.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 12:43pm
Amen Donna, Many politicians don"t have a clue. R.L.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:16pm
Choice has not worked out so well for the majority of students. Since choice draws away the better students and better athletes from neighborhood public schools, more has to be done to supplement the education of those students "left behind." Has choice increased or decreased segregation of students by race? economic well-being? Do we really believe that every student deserves a quality education?
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 2:02pm
That is what the MEA, NEA and AFT say, but it is propaganda. Most faith-based schools operate on far, far less money per pupil than public schools do, yet they have better rankings, test scores, etc.
Mon, 01/25/2016 - 11:26pm
You have to understand just how crucial it is for parents to be involved in a child's education. Most parochial schools mandate some sort of parental involvement in school. You also have to consider that if an average public school has 35% of parents who do not value education or instill those values in their children... that will drastically affect student performance. On the flip side, if a parent is willing to pay out of pocket for their child's education...they will certainly have a higher concentration of parents who truly value education and this will also drastically affect student achievement. There are many more factors at play here, so don't judge a school by its "performance" without considering the material they are working with.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 5:54pm
So is it your idea that higher acheiving students be held hostage in lower performing schools? Isn't it the exactly the case that we do exactly what you lament in higher ed, and our colleges and U's are the envy of the world?
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 1:27pm
Wasn't the idea behind choice was that it would force the public schools to try harder to get better? One problem with that is they are taking money away from the public schools when students leave so they have to cut budgets and have less money to work with in striving to get improvement. Competition may work in the business world when you have more resources to put into fixing a problem but schools are not a business in the traditional sense of the term, with business you cut out the unproductive aspects of what is holding you back, they can't just get rid of low performing students who are not interested in learning.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 2:14pm
Check out this report -- Scroll down to page 33 (page 31 in the report) and read what Richard Komer, a senior litigation attorney at the Institute for Justice based in Arlington, Virginia says. He has 28 years of experience in government and at the Institute. He refutes everything you are saying.
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 10:10pm
***, I am not sure you fully appreciate what competition of ideas and programs is and how it delivers success. Competition is about results and how it is most effectively achieved. You seem to only see it having to do with money, money can be a element for measuring performance but not the only measure. Competition is about comparing alternative apaproaches based on results, effectiveness and value. If the purpose is student learning, why should we rely only on established model of education if it isn't delivering on that learning? Why not have alternative approaches tried and results compared to the established system? Why not have the methods/approaches compete, have means and methods compared based on results? Why keep spending money on a scheme that isn't as effective as another? Might parents be voting with their feet, and shouldn't we be asking why? If customers benefit from the competition of businesses, service/products, then why shouldn't students benefit from competing approaches to learning?
Charles Richards
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 6:10pm
" DPS is now widely recognized as an unfixable entity." There are two parts to an educational system: supply and demand. Excellent Schools Detroit grades every school in Detroit every year. But they never reveal what effect, if any, those grades have on demand for places in the better schools. Why? There are superior charter schools in Detroit that find it necessary to give out gift cards in order to attract students. Why? Superior charter schools in New York City have to have lotteries in order to allocate places because the demand for places is multiple times the number of openings available. You never hear of that in Detroit. Why?
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 6:49pm
I applaud and appreciate what the parochial schools do and how well they do it. It would be nice if they paid a competitive wage, or should I say a living wage. I know at least a half dozen people when asked if they were able to get a job in the public school rather than a parochial school or a charter
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 6:52pm
I got cut off. If they got offered the public school job they would take it. They obviously were attracted somewhat by the wages and the retirement. See my previous statement. R.L.
Jeff Salisbury
Sun, 01/25/2015 - 10:07pm
Proposal A DID NONE OF THIS... "That all changed in 1993 when Michigan’s massive Proposal A statewide education reforms introduced choice and competition in public education, including: Authorizing charter public schools to compete with DPS. Allowing Detroit residents to attend adjacent districts. Creating a “per-pupil allowance,” permitting a pupil to take state school operating funds to the school the pupil selects." - McLellen must simply be ignorant when he wrote this essay. The Michigan Tax Amendment, also known as Proposal A, was a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment on the March 15, 1994 ballot (NOT 1993) in Michigan, where it was approved. Proposal A had nothing whatsoever to do with charter schools or allowing Detroit resident to attend adjacent districts or creating a per pupil allowance to take operating funds from one school district to another. Proposal A increased sales and use tax rates from 4% to 6%; limited annual increases in property tax assessments, exempted school operating millages from uniform taxation requirement, and required 3/4 vote of legislature to exceed statutorily established school operating millage rates.[,_Proposal_A_%28March_1994%29]
Mon, 01/26/2015 - 1:22am
Well you are kind of right, but you're also wrong. Education reform did get kicked off in 1993 when the 1994 school funding ballot proposal got put together. When it passed the real reforms began. Read this article:
Mon, 01/26/2015 - 8:12am
These discussions on education go round and round and end up nowhere. I hate to say it but for many students the situation is a lost cause because their parents refuse to get involved and don't take education seriously and impart that value unto their children, no amount of money or reform is going to get past that impass.
Richard McLellan
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 11:16pm
Well, at least this column started a conversation. And as usual, the first comment is from someone bringing up "skunk works" (other times it is the other toxic word -- "vouchers.") I wonder who *** is that likes to comment?
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 5:13pm
The issue/challenge remains economic poverty. The best efforts of adults working in schools (the vast majority of whom are dedicated to the success of children) - regardless if the school is a charter, public, private, etc - are vastly trumped by the multiplicity of consequences that stem from poverty. Arguments about choice, unions, governance models, etc. are far less significant when compared with the broad and devastating impacts of poverty. In fact, poverty has such significant effects that more affluent parents will intentionally move their kids away from other kids who suffer from the effects of poverty. Some private schools cater (in an unspoken manner) to such desires. If we desire better educational outcomes for learners, we would be far better off tackling the root causes of poverty rather than arguing over the significantly smaller effect-size strategies around choice, unions, governance, etc. Poor kids can indeed learn, but it takes a strategic and laser-like focus on evidence-based practices and programs/services that respond to the obstacles created by economic poverty. Michigan's (and all states') level of educational outcomes closely track the economic fortunes (or lack thereof) of its citizens. Unfortunately, self-appointed educational reformers - many of whom are lay people - continue to infuse distractions into this complex work in the form of never-ending policies, regulations, testing schemes, and model bills proffered by unknown actors. Deep-pocketed interests see new profit centers amid this churn of "reforms." (Check out the audited statements from the large for-profit cyber charter school, K12 Inc. They claim 48 employee FTE's to run a special education program that only lists 11 student FTE's! Check out the amount of their budget devoted to administration! This is a cash cow with Michigan tax dollars going to out-of-state entities in the form of obscene profits.) Focus on combating poverty (not the fool's errand of trying to segregate ourselves from it) and educational outcomes will improve dramatically. Our collective fortunes are all intertwined.
Wayne O'Brien
Sun, 02/01/2015 - 10:28am
Here in the USA, when massive-budget "losing" sports teams decide that they want to become winners they study the winners and then begin to emulate them. Research underpinning the poverty-is-dangerous-to-an-education conclusions is an unassailable given. Honoring our social contract to the common good means that poverty must be addressed through creativity and commitment at every level; local, state and federal. When those in the world who found ways to "score big" on the PISA with their education practices and policies, like Finland, made monumental improvements to their educational worldwide student success standings----they began by "tackling" teacher quality. Schools are not the common denominator. Teacher quality is the common denominator. EVERY student in Finland is provided with an actual (masters degree holding) teacher from the top of their classes. It is more difficult to become a teacher in Finland than it is to become a physician, lawyer or engineer. Candidates who would qualify for M.I.T. admission here are among the pre-selection-for-teacher candidacy-for-training-pool there and only a fraction of them are accepted. The policy makers and legislators in Finland realize the powerful potential societal influence that teachers have during their professional lives (30+ years) and are intent on providing their most precious natural resource, their children, with only the best of the best. Do Michigan's students deserve less? The worldwide educational winners have taken school choice off the table. EVERY student, regardless of the school they attend, gets a great teacher from the top of their classes. Let's pay attention to what the educating winners are doing.....because we already know what it's like to be among the "mis-educating" losers.
Tom Pedroni
Sun, 02/01/2015 - 7:00pm
McLellan feels no need to muster the non-existing evidence that would allow him to argue that Detroit children have benefited from so-called choice. Also nothing about how government, his supposed greatest foe, created market winners and losers by decimating the capacity of DPS to compete through two state takeovers from 1999-2006 and then again from 2009-present.