It’s way past time to start thinking seriously – very seriously -- about what we’re going to do about Michigan schools. That is, if we want to have any serious hope of a better future.
The utter silliness and dabbling our leaders have been guilty of in recent years just won’t hack it.
In the last two months, two powerful reports have provided clinical details behind the rolling debacle that is Michigan’s school performance. It’s clear that if things aren’t corrected, we will be condemning too many of our children to a hobbled life, and our state to economic mediocrity or worse.
The Education Trust- Midwest, a leading nonpartisan education research and policy outfit, reported this spring that Michigan school performance is falling further and further behind other states. Unless things change, Michigan will rank 48th in the country by 2030. Importantly, this applies both to schools serving poor, mostly minority students and those with middle-class kids.
Michigan already is in the bottom 10 states for fourth-grade literacy and math and one of only a few states which posted learning losses in overall student performance in fourth-grade reading.
Then last week, a report released by the U.S. Department of Education found that over the past three decades, Michigan increased spending on prisons more than five times faster than it did on public education. The report shows that from 1979 to 2013, Michigan increased spending on schools by 18 percent, while the state increased spending on corrections by 219 percent.
Only six other states – all of them small and largely rural -- showed the same kind of increases for prisons at the expense of education. Most humiliating of all: Michigan also increased spending on education less than any other state in the nation.
There’s nothing new about the general thrust of these reports -- although the details should scare the lives out of state policymakers.
Nor is it pure coincidence that Michigan’s education achievement keeps plunging compared with other states while we keep cutting our resources devoted to learning and teaching.
So what has gone so wrong? These horrifying statistics provoked me to take a look at the basic organization of Michigan’s apparatus of governing our schools. What emerged is truly shocking.
The Michigan “system,” if you can call it that, is a chaotic, disorganized structure that virtually guarantees a lack of accountability for consistently poor results.
It’s almost as though those who designed the governance system for Michigan schools intentionally set things up so as to create an unaccountable, incoherent and rigidly unchangeable structure that assures the same bad results decade to decade.
Consider these facts:
The Michigan Constitution designates the governor as the state’s chief executive officer, responsible for providing for a system of public education on the grounds that, “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (Article VIII, Sec. 1).
The governor develops and submits the state school budget for approval by the legislature; the successive budgets set out by various governors say how money should be spent on schools. Governors come and governors go, and each occupant of the office is free to adopt his or her own priorities. In recent years, we’ve had both Democratic and Republican governors each bringing to the office his or her particular mix of preferences, priorities and biases. Basic education policy over the years is captive to gubernatorial personality and circumstance.
The Constitution (Article VIII, Sec. 3) also establishes an eight-member state board of education, which has “leadership and general supervision over all public education. … It shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education.”
Candidates for the board are elected statewide on the partisan ballot, nominated by the political parties at their conventions. In recent years, the state board has had a Democratic majority, who may or may not agree with the governor or the legislature on matters of educational policy or practice.
From time to time, the board does issue pronouncements about education policy, which, however, are often largely ignored.
The State Board also appoints “a superintendent of public instruction” who “shall be responsible for the execution of its policies.” He shall be the principal executive officer of the state department of education.” There is, however, no constitutional requirement that the superintendent agree in policy or politics with the governor, with individual members of the State Board or with legislative committee chairs or powerful lawmakers.
Often, in fact, they have not. The legislature conducts its business through a system of committees in both the state Senate and the House of Representatives. Some of these committees deal with issues of state education policy and some (“appropriations committees” or subcommittees) determine details of state spending on schools. These committees review and act on the governor’s recommendations on the level of per-pupil state funding.
Again, there is no requirement that the chairs or members of these committees agree with each other, or with the governor, or with the state board of education or the superintendent of public instruction.
Yet they have vast influence over a huge student population. As of last year, there were 1,507,743 traditional public school students enrolled in Michigan. Our 540 local school districts (plus 57 “intermediate” districts) are each governed by a locally elected nonpartisan school board. These school boards determine education policy, practice and detailed budgets for their particular districts.
Remarkably, there is no constitutional requirement that any local school board agree with any other state official on educational policy.
According to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, there are also about 300 “public school academies” (charter schools) serving 145,000 students in Michigan.
Each of them also receives an annual “foundation grant” from the state, roughly the same as the $7,511 each traditional public school student will receive next year.
But many charter schools are owned and controlled by for-profit corporations, which are frequently private and not subject to public scrutiny. The legislature has determined that the number of students and the location of charter schools is solely the business of the charter school companies.
In some districts (Detroit, for instance) there are now probably more students in charters than in traditional public schools.
There’s no central body to determine the best balance between charter and public school locations and enrollment, and the legislature this year killed a sensible attempt to establish one for Detroit. Advocates for charters argue that it should all be up to the free market. Critics of charters charge they are cherry-picking the easiest-to- teach students and the best areas and are diverting scarce public resources from public schools.
Policy is also affected by a number of interest groups with a vested interest in Michigan schools, some of which are quite powerful. Included in this group are teachers’ unions, associations of various kinds of school officials, advocates for charter and public schools.
Political ideologies also affect – often very substantially -- policy debate on school matters. Democrats by and large favor traditional public schools and increasing school funding, while Republicans are generally hostile to teacher unions.
So what shall we do about this terrible state of affairs?
Step one: If my description wasn’t clear enough, try drawing up the organization chart describing Michigan’s structure for governing schools. On one page, please.
Step two: Readers who care should phone folks they know and ask them simple questions: “Are you personally responsible for the lack of performance of our schools? If not, who is? Who should be held personally accountable for this terrible situation?”
The point of this is simple: A very big reason our kids don’t learn very well is the very structure of our education system blurs responsibility and eliminates accountability.
Common sense says that organizations whose basic structure defuses authority, fuzzes responsibility and ignores accountability are virtually certain to produce poor results.
Sound like what we’ve got here in Michigan? Yup.
Expect any meaningful change in the near future? Nope.
Governor Rick Snyder did announce last month the appointment of his 21st Century Education Commission to put into place an education system that positions Michigan as a national leader in developing talent to address today’s economy.
But sadly, I don’t expect any particular result from this or any other education commission, other than merely another report that gathers dust on a state library shelf. Nobody I’ve talked with expects anything different, either.
Now ask yourselves -- is what we have now really the way we want our schools to be run?