Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra once argued for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education on the premise that it was primarily a jobs program based on the distrust of fellow Americans. After collecting the requisite taxes, Washington returns the money to the states with specific instructions on how it is to be spent. Bureaucrats in the USDOE then spend their days checking up on and auditing the practices and expenditures of the recipient states. State departments of education in turn, and with equal animus, mirror and repeat those exercises with our local school districts. Somewhere along the way, students in classrooms are expected to learn something.
Twenty years ago, Gov. John Engler hired me as his education policy advisor. A year before, in 1994, Michigan had passed Proposal A, the landmark education funding plan which traded local funding autonomy for guaranteed state support. While equitable funding was a stated goal, and the disparity between high and low spending districts has been greatly diminished, parity still remains elusive, and we still have over 150 different foundation allowances! [The amount each school district receives on a per-pupil basis of state and local funds] Remarkably, we spend roughly $20 billion in combined federal, state, and local funds, yet Michigan students have fallen precipitously from the top 20 to the bottom five in reading and math scores among the states that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP tests. Why?
I support the notion that we have lost our focus and attention on student achievement and performance while chasing the latest educational fad and worrying about charter schools, choice, and what others may be receiving in their foundation.
“Handwringing over bullying, nutrition, health, eradicating poverty and pumping up self-esteem (is) all noise”
Harried teachers and administrators are consumed with complying with an ever-changing myriad of rules and reports set by Washington or Lansing, from Goals 2000, to No Child Left Behind, to the current Race to the Top efforts espoused by President Obama, while handwringing over bullying, nutrition, health, eradicating poverty and pumping up self-esteem consume the remainder of the day. It's all noise, so let's begin quieting the room for the real work of passing knowledge onto our children.
Currently the Michigan School Aid Act, which funds K-12 education, is a 212-page prescription with specific sections tied to specific constituencies. It's a lobbyist’s dream, an adult playground of sorts. As the chair of the House School Aid appropriations subcommittee, I'd like to simplify the process by eliminating as many "categoricals" [funds earmarked for specific programs] as possible. Two categoricals I plan to eliminate are Best Practices Incentives (Sec.22f) and District Performance Grants (Sec.22j).
These are prime examples of Lansing trying to improve both financial and academic performance through a mostly "carrot" approach which usually resulted in rewarding schools who were already high flyers in system management, communication, and student achievement.
Both have caused considerable consternation among many school districts and rolled-up would add $125 million more to the foundation. Others, like At-Risk Funding (Sec.31a), need to be tweaked in order to maximize their impact among our most disadvantaged students. We can no longer afford to fund one-off programs that deliver inferior results against more proven strategies. Random acts of excellence must become the rule rather than the exception.
It's important to note that my goal then is to simplify school funding, provide more flexibility and restore local decision making by cutting the strings and providing as much funding directly to the classroom as possible. In doing so, we could remove Lansing as an excuse and restore the focus and interest in student performance.