Michigan schools continue to flail, but no one trusts the solutions

Campaigning for governor in 2010 as Michigan was clawing its way back from the abyss of the Great Recession, Rick Snyder created a huge sense of urgency for business tax reform as a way to revive the state’s failing economy.

Just 143 days into Snyder’s tenure as governor, longtime Lansing observer Peter Luke wrote the following for Bridge:

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the biggest tax overhaul in Michigan in 17 years that finances the elimination of the Michigan business tax with a bundle of changes to the personal income tax.

Overall, it amounts to a $220 million net cut in tax revenues to state coffers, but for Michigan businesses, including some 100,000 that no longer will have to pay the repealed Michigan Business Tax, it’s a $1.65 billion cut.

...“Something fundamentally had to happen to make us a great state again,” Snyder said before signing House Bill 4361 into law as Republican lawmakers looked on.

Snyder did so after adopting the Business Leaders For Michigan mantra that it was essential we take bold and decisive action to make Michigan a top-10 economic powerhouse once again.

Today the governor, along with state Superintendent Brian Whiston and education advocacy group The Education Trust-Midwest, all have their own plans to make Michigan a top-10 state in education. The governor has empaneled a bipartisan 21st Century Commission on Education to study the issue and make recommendations.

Does anybody really believe the governor’s proposal for education will reflect the same sense of urgency with which he addressed the Michigan Business Tax? I suspect not.

There are myriad reasons for the education reform malaise, even as Michigan continues to plummet in student performance among the states, much as its per-capita income ranking fell from 1994 through 2014.

One reason may be that few see the crisis. Parents are still likely to grade their school as an A or a B even as they grade the institution of public education as a C or a D.

A better reason may be the lack of consensus on a cure. Voters and legislators are almost always in alignment on fiscal crises but there is often wide disparity on policy solutions. The education crisis that prompted the Legislature to act in concert with voter concerns, as it did for Snyder in 2011, was the property tax revolt of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That resulted in Proposal A, a dramatic redistribution of tax burden from property taxes to sales taxes to finance public education.

There is no such policy consensus for improving academic performance, as evidenced by the recent debate over the Detroit Public Schools. While the system’s debt riveted the attention of Snyder and legislators, it was the difference of opinion over a policy decision -- a proposed oversight body to govern charter school openings and placement -- that stalled the bailout until community leaders abandoned their hopes of a coordinating commission for fear of a total loss through bankruptcy.

Absent agreement on crisis or cure, I’ve something of a counterintuitive recommendation for reform. Follow the lead of Congress. Restore local control. Faced with a failed national policy demanding 100 percent student proficiency in 2014, and with the U.S. Education Department issuing waivers to virtually every state in the union, Congress in December 2015 punted the problem back to the states with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Michigan and all other states are now struggling to rewrite their own assessment and accountability plans. The vision of a showdown between the Legislature and the state Board of Education already looms as those who don’t want to retreat on the No Child Left Behind standards-based accountability movement are lining up against the school community’s preferred model of growth measurement, as opposed to high-stakes testing.

We also have a wide division between the Legislature and the school community on funding. Educators believe we’ve too little; legislators believe we certainly have enough, despite a recent finance study indicating most schools should receive about $1,200 more per pupil and those students at greatest risk, or those who are English-language learners, should receive 30 to 40 percent more.

Why shouldn’t our new state accountability plan mirror the third-grade reading bill the Legislature recently sent to the governor? It places a great deal of focus on early literacy, sets a standard to be met by educators, and recommends strategies for improvement and discussion between parents and teachers. This is far better policy than that proposed in the original draft, which had Lansing telling parents, third-grade teachers and elementary principals whom to pass on to fourth grade and whom to hold back.

State government should set standards and allow local boards of education, parents and the business community that elects them to determine how to meet those standards. The consequences of failure should be clear, and they should be enforced.

So, too, should our state return to local communities the opportunity to increase their contribution to school operating budgets. Giving individual communities the opportunity to adequately fund their schools by contributing more from local taxpayers needn’t negate equity or return Michigan to the vast differences in funding before Proposal A. Maintaining equity could be managed through an equalization factor which would not allow a gap any greater between high- and low-funded districts than, say, 25 percent.

If there’s a crisis worthy of dramatic response, it’s more likely to come from the parents of children in their neighborhood schools than it is from legislators and lobbyists.

This commentary originally appeared in School News Network, a site dedicated to news of the Kent Intermediate School district.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Martha Toth
Fri, 10/07/2016 - 2:43pm
I don't see how allowing the return of local operating millage increases can work in an environment of unrestricted school choice. Local taxpayers already pay for school facilities where a third or half the students come from outside the district. Do you really think they will also agree to pay extra operating costs, too, for families that do not bear the increased tax burden?
William Gordon
Thu, 10/20/2016 - 4:47pm
That's why we need a voucher system. So those out of district students can bring the money with them!
Kevin Grand
Sat, 10/08/2016 - 11:34am
"So, too, should our state return to local communities the opportunity to increase their contribution to school operating budgets. Giving individual communities the opportunity to adequately fund their schools by contributing more from local taxpayers needn’t negate equity or return Michigan to the vast differences in funding before Proposal A. Maintaining equity could be managed through an equalization factor which would not allow a gap any greater between high- and low-funded districts than, say, 25 percent." And what could possibly go wrong here? When you allow this (go to page 7). Then, add to that amount this. Yet fail to do something like this (which the political class is terrified to do). This will invariably become the outcome of Asst. Supt. Koehler's proposal. What was that again about those who fail to learn from the lessons of history?
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 5:52am
What is proficiency? Is it something as simple as meeting a series of minimum standards? Is it being able to adequately do a certain job? Or is it being able to enrich yourself through future learning? I believe that the latter question is the most important one. If a school can graduate students with an ability to adapt and change and learn new tasks, then it has succeeded. If a school can only graduate students whose measure of success is regurgitating past learned facts, then that school has failed.
Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 2:11pm
Rich fails to realize that while students can be taught information and skills, they cannot be taught intelligence, which is what he is asking.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 10:07pm
M.O., You may not be able to teach natural talent, but you can teach how to learn, to understand and apply concepts, how to assess risks and rewards when facing a problem. To do that you first must make that the purpose of the educational system and then you must work at getting the students interest in learning all of it. Consider how sports work, relatively few have natural talent, and even those with that talent, have to learn the knowledge and skills and conditioning to be successful in a sport. The key is that kids have to have a desire to succeed in the sport sufficient for them to do all the work necessary to succeed. Academics are not different. The 3rd grade reading is a good example of the difference of money and desire. If the child has no desire to read then I don't care how much is spent on the classroom the child will not learn. My best guess is that the relationship to earning a college degree has more to do with the desire/persistence of the student for the degree than it has to do with money. The least expensive degree programs [community colleges] seem to have the highest drop out rate. I suspect if you look past the money you would find kids that earn degrees are more likely to come from homes where a parent or two have degrees, for the child sees the value of a degree each day. I hear there is a KIPP educational system that is very successful. KIPP is significantly less costly than the public school costs with much better results. It seems that in Washington DC school ~$20,000 student and the results are disappointing even compared to Michigan schools.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 6:32am
The MEA (i.e., teacher's union) is one of the - if not THE - most powerful lobbying organizations in Michigan. They give MILLIONS to Michigan politicians who then work to increase benefits to unionized government laborers, knowing that when the next time for contributions roll around the politicians will receive their share of the ill-gotten spoils in the union dues coffers all at taxpayer expense. This vicious cycle keeps turning and turning and turning all while quality of education continues to decline as well as the incomes and quality of life for Michigan taxpayers - the good, hardworking folks who these parasites leech from. Unionized labor is a thing of the past, and well-paying unionized labor jobs in the private sector are almost nonexistent in today’s McService minimum wage economy. IT’S TIME FOR THE HIGHWAY ROBBERY TO STOP. DISMANTLE GOVERNMENT UNIONS NOW! Refuse to pay increased taxes to support police unions in the public sector when these unions are the same ones who broke-up picket lines and destroyed unions in the private sector along with our former quality of American life. No more high living off the backs of taxpayers, whose earnings have been stagnant for DECADES and whose discretionary incomes are essentially non-existent. DISMANTLE GOVERNMENT UNIONS NOW!
A Michigan teacher
Mon, 10/10/2016 - 10:42pm
As a unionized teacher in Michigan I can tell you firsthand that nothing can be farther from the truth! One DeVos family has more power than all Michigan teachers combined. I have worked in three school districts and the vast majority of teachers work very hard, have seen their pay and benefits cut (quite large when adjust for inflation) and have increased spending of their own money to help meet their students needs. Ironically since "right to work" was passed to bust unions (yes the anti-teacher forces are way more powerful than the MEA), the few teachers I have heard who quit paying dues are in fact the slackers in other areas of their job, in other words generally the worst teachers. The best teachers want a union so they can have a say in improving their school districts. The vast majority of union activity is for improvements that just about any parent would want for their kids and their local schools. I say this as someone who used to be active in the GOP and I am no liberal! I am staunchly pro-police and pro-firemen/women too and they need their unions for the same reasons (safety issues, check and balance if there is a bad administrator, fair compensation, etc etc). If you are angry at the rare abuses found in public education we are even more angry about it as our enemies use such isolated cases to viciously attack and harm people who are among the least greedy and hardest working I have ever seen! Also for those who say we do not understand business, I had a business career first and worked at two fortune 200 corporations and the three school districts I worked in are run far more efficiently and the staff work much harder for far less money. In my case I took a $20,000 per year pay cut because I wanted to make a difference and teach our kids! Teachers make great sacrifices and are in a far tougher situation today than they have been in for decades and with far less support from many of our political leaders who are focused on passing laws to make their ultra-wealthy financiers even richer at our expense!
Tue, 10/11/2016 - 10:29am
If you dialed it down just a bit and DID NOT SHOUT at people, perhaps part of your message might come through. Remember the old adage, it takes two to tango. One needs to examine the reasons union came into being. Those reasons have not changed, and in many cases, are even more of a challenge for workers who have little or no voice. At least you did try to start a discussion. But shouting at the unions is so shallow.
Tue, 10/11/2016 - 9:19pm
I sense no shouting from GO because no caps were used except where needed. GO is just protecting teachers from the one bad teacher crowd comment that makes all teachers look bad. My daughter is a teacher and she spends her own money on food and clothing for her students, she asked her relatives to help pitch in when two families lost ther'ye homes due to fires. Teachers haven't been taken careof or respected since the effing day Engler took office.. ..
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 8:14am
Allowing local millages results in pay and benefit increases for employees that are often unaffordable. First school districts settle contracts that they cannot afford. Then they threaten taxpayers with cuts in educational programs unless a local millage is passed. The only reason these threatened cuts are necessary are the unwarranted high contract costs. Proposal A ended this game. If a school district ran a millage proposal to provide more money for employee salaries and benefits, it would fail miserably.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 10:27am
Too much of the author's point is nothing more than further entrenching the “Educational Opportunity by Zip-code” concept. This is one the worst ideas to crawl out of the bureaucratic swamp. It was conceived prior to modern transportation and perpetuated for mainly nefarious and yes racist reasons. Secondly not that money couldn't benefit somethings in some ways, but thinking that more money will automatically lead to across the board improvement is nuts,. Most just evaporates into underfunded pensions and healthcare benefits and the bureaucracy. When adjusted by cost of living (cost of everything!), Michigan’s spending isn't as bad as many wish to portray, in fact our public school teacher/personnel are compensated in the top echelon - and remember 85%+/- of all money spent on education goes for personnel costs. This is a statement of fact, not a complaint, as a great teacher is surely worth it but extra money rarely goes that direction! This constant song of doing the same thing only with more money is tedious.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 3:19pm
The reality is that the only good and honest change in this state is happening at the grass roots level by the younger generations, while Rome (Lansing) burns. As a mother and grandmother, I am supporting the younger generation with the creativity and the desire to change You talk about old songs Matt, your "tedious" arguments reducing funding to schools is very old.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 9:07pm
Another clear example of shortcomings of public education ... reading comprehension, as nothing was said advocating reducing spending for schools.
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 10:24pm
Matt, I am afraid that Bernadette was raised by parents from the Depression generation when the politicians sold the idea that is was other people's money that would solve all the problems and moved them away from the idea of it is the individual that determines their success. Where she thinks it only takes more money she has never learned that it is the individuals desire and persistent effort that develops the knowledge and skills to earn that money she wants to spend. She doesn't realize that money can drive out new and innovative ideas by discouraging those spending the money to try new ideas to change/improve results. As best I can tell it is the rare exception that public spenders come up with any new ideas or innovative approaches to long standing problems. She most likely learned this ideas of spending other people's money from her parents and never stop to think about how her parents actually lived their lives and did much of what it took to succeed rather than by spending other people's money. Bernadette has had that mindset of spending other people's money no matter if it solves a problem or not so long that it even prevents her from reading what is written. It is much like she knows what she wants to hear and if it she doesn't hear those words in that order she already has he answer she has been using for decades. I am glad Bernadette is commenting/participating because it puts her at risk of hearing something different and actually asking questions of those with different ideas.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 10:29am
Duane, You know nothing about me except I bring another view point to the table. So making assumptions and projecting your ideas is the way you and so many men of your generation react. You really do need to read Rebecca Solnit's book: Men explain things to me. You may get some insights into how your arguments and behavior are perceived by other. I am glad you and Matt comment on these articles as well so as stated in your comment: "commenting/participating because it puts her at risk of hearing something different and actually asking questions of those with different ideas."
A Michgian teacher
Mon, 10/10/2016 - 11:00pm
School financing has been at the center of budgeting games in Lansing. Going back to Gov. Engler the teacher's pension system was raided over and over for massive sums of money and "IOUs" were left from the state. Also the state engaged in all kinds of foolish policies like allowing out-of-state administrators to come to Michigan, work as little as 5 years, and then qualify for a Michigan pension too. Also pensions could have been capped and many huge pensions for top state officials and politicians, many of whom went on to make big money like Gov. Engler, still kept getting large pensions (should have been cut drastically in many cases). Also the state keeps pressuring "buyouts" which leads to more and younger pensioners. The pensions were also greatly harmed when the GOP ran the country from 2001-2008 and nearly destroyed American Capitalism by allowing Wall Street de-regulation to run wild and failing to properly regulate US finance which crashed the stock market and devastated trillions form US pensions. All of these bad policies and blunders should be covered 100 percent by the state in separate budgeting from per student school funding. But they play games and dump all of these expenses to pay for the money they raided, lost and wasted onto the current teachers and schools to pay. They also exempt all of the for-profit schools for paying into the system so they in effect get much more money per student than nonprofit schools. Michigan teachers have faced big cuts when adjusted for inflation to wages and pay far more for worse benefits. This has lead to many great young teachers to leave the profession and many of the possible best future teachers to consider other career options. The state needs to clean up its own financial mess and properly fund the schools without dumping massive added costs and unfunded mandates to make it look like the are properly funding Michigan schools, which they are not! I would estimate that Michigan schools are currently underfunded by at least $1,000 per student per year. We need to end the budget and funding games in Lansing along with the bad education policies that have greatly harmed our schools! We also need to end the myths and lies that are often repeated about teachers, school financing and the main causes of problems affecting Michigan schools.
Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 2:48pm
Mr. Koehler says, "Maintaining equity could be managed through an equalization factor which would not allow a gap any greater between high- and low-funded districts than, say, 25 percent." It would have been helpful if he had provided the current percentage gap between high and low-funded districts. Further, it would have been helpful if could have shown a strong correlation between funding and results. And he could have mentioned that there is a strong relationship between the percentage of college graduates in a school district and both funding and results. Mr. Koehler is being disingenuous when he says, " community leaders abandoned their hopes of a coordinating commission for fear of a total loss through bankruptcy." That was not the case at all. He also says that a recent finance study indicated "most schools should receive about $1,200 more per pupil". He did not mention that an additional $1,000 per student would be expected to improve results by one percentage point. In his discussion of third grade literacy, he failed to mention that from one-third to one half of third graders cannot read at grade level. Nor did he give any history of that literacy rate and whether there was any relationship between that literacy rate and funding.
Barry Visel
Mon, 10/10/2016 - 7:51am
I believe this commentary along with the resulting comments would make a great case study for a high school government class.
Mon, 10/10/2016 - 10:09am
Too much politics, teachers are discouraged and tired of the blame game and meddling by morons who only look at statistics and numbers and understand nothing about what it means. Its a lost cause.
Mon, 10/10/2016 - 10:31pm
Gov. Snyder and the Michigan GOP have greatly damaged Michigan education through combination of underfunding and a long list of bad policies! They have also made working conditions, pay and benefits much worse for Michigan educators which makes it harder and harder to attract top talent into Michigan schools. The perception among educators is that Gov. Snyder and the Michigan GOP have little or no interest in working with us to improve nonprofit K-12 schools as they seek to replace public education with for-profit "charter" schools. The test scores used to evaluate students' progress are meaningless as Michigan students have zero accountability for their test scores and often bubble in random answer and do not care much how they perform on them. The tests have no impact on their grades or whether they pass or graduate, unlike every other advanced Western country where there is very strict accountability for test scores. The cuts have lead to much less choices for Michigan students as thousands of classes, programs, sports, arts, shop, technology, foreign languages, etc. has been cut in Michigan schools. To attract the best jobs and businesses we need to be doing the opposite! Michigan educators have tried to work with Gov. Snyder and the Michigan GOP, I have met with GOP reps personally and have contacted Gov. Snyder's office numerous times, to no avail! They seem focused on shortsighted foolish endeavors like union busting ("Right to work") and scheming to push for-profit schools, which are viewed as subpar places to teach and mostly benefit those making the big profits by offering much less for the taxpayers investment. Businesses want very good nonprofit public schools that have great academics, excellent arts (music, drama, choir, etc), modern 21st century technology, shop and skilled trade options, extensive sports and PE, advanced classes, computer coding, digital media classes, foreign languages, great core and special needs classes, etc. etc. The people of Michigan need to know that we can reverse much of the damage and make real improvements if we can get new leaders in Lansing and stop the anti-education lobby from making Michigan education policy, which is all about a tiny few making a lot of money for themselves at the expense of Michigan taxpayers and our kids!
Tue, 10/11/2016 - 6:34am
This was quite a disappointing and intellectually lazy piece. We hear that our schools are "failing" so often that we take it at face value, although there's little evidence to support it. Republicans promote this narrative because it proves that the teacher union is inept and public institutions rarely succeed and Democrats promote it as a means of convincing the public we need to spend more money. The reality is that our education system is not failing. That's not to say that there aren't challenges, especially in urban districts. But those challenges are probably much more closely tied to the complications of poverty as opposed to a failing educational system. The reality is that those countries who have long scored at the top of the world in standardized testing are no where to be found as economic superpowers. Nor did they create GPS, the Internet, Facebook, the IPad or most other technological innovations that are transforming the world. That honor goes to a country who never topped the world's standardized test scores. After reading the article's title, I was anxiously waiting to hear just what problems we need to address in our nation's educational system. Instead, it became a dissertation about how public schools need more money, without even a clear suggestion of what that might accomplish. In the meantime, the constant negative comments about our nation's "failing" education system has consequences. Our educators feel besieged and unappreciated-- not necessarily by their own parents or students. But by our leaders who keep telling the world that they are failures.
Tue, 10/11/2016 - 3:19pm
Keith, We always need a reminder of what the realities are. Thanks.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 4:31pm
Fixing education in Michigan is a long-term project. Because of term limits, the current legislatures will not be around when it is decided whether what they implemented succeeded or failed. In other words there is no accountability. THe Governor is busy trying to save his asp over the water crisis he created in Flint. In other words, those in charge have no skin in the game. The state and local politicians need to address education like the national government oversees the military. With the military our government first determines what is necessary in order to remain the strongest nation in the world. Then it goes about getting the necessary funds to make this happen. With education we first decide how much money will be spent and then decide how best to spend it. All of you will notice that this time I did not mention that during Detroit's bankruptcy the Governor stole billions of dollars in assets from the city with no good reason. These assets should have been used to build a premiere school district in Detroit. Instead that district continues to flounder. ... http://lstrn.us/1Lyowgr
John S.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 8:42pm
At a talk years ago a professor from Texas A&M, Kenneth Meier, who has conducted extensive educational research, identified five factors linked with better academic performance: experienced and skilled school district administration; parental involvement; stable curriculum; high standards; hard work (homework). Plainly, there's need for capable, experienced, and motivated teachers who are well-paid. None of the above, however, are linked with all of the things that adults like to talk about and think are important such as public vs. charter schools, school finance, teacher unions, testing, etc. Their chief concerns seem to be about who gets the authority and the money. They're barking up the wrong tree. It's in the classrooms and the homes where academic success is achieved.