Bills would turn Michigan into 'super choice' state

Michigan Board of Education President John Austin calls it a “nuclear bomb.”

National education reformer Diane Ravitch proclaims “Michigan is on its way to ending public education.”

Michigan Future Inc. President Lou Glazer warns that local school districts won’t survive.

Welcome to education reform in Michigan, circa 2012.

A coordinated series of draft and introduced bills could reshape public education in Michigan, giving students more options and re-routing taxpayer money.

Richard McLellan,* the Lansing attorney at the center of legislation, says critics should focus more on improving education than their debating points: “I think it will potentially drive real change for better learning. So, in that respect, if you believe schools are not doing a very good job today and you believe they do a better job afterward, then yes, it could be disruptive for some people’s careers.” He wishes, “People spent as much time analyzing the reforms as they spend with rhetoric."

State education leaders warn, however, of serious unintended consequences of the reforms that need to be addressed if the bills are to be passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder:

“Super choice”

* House Bill 6004 and Senate Bill 1358 expand the powers of the Educational Achievement Authority, which was established to run low-performing schools. The EAA is state-operated school district that this year is running 15 Detroit schools, with plans to expand next year to schools across the state scoring in the bottom 5 percent of all schools.

The legislation would codify an existing interlocal agreement in state law.

But the legislation goes beyond a legal cleanup. The EAA also could potentially take over schools beyond the state’s bottom 5 percent, open its own schools, hand over existing local public school buildings to charter schools, and exempt EAA schools from statewide assessment tests.

* House Bill 5923 would create nine new kinds of schools, including boarding schools, corporation-run schools and single-gender schools. For example, Compuware could open a school for the children of its employees and receive per-pupil funding for it.

Another variety of school – “globally competitive” – would be able to use a competitive admissions process and “recruit pupils from anywhere in the world.”

HB 5923 would strongly promote online classes, to the point that it appears to “uncap” the enrollment restrictions placed on cyberschools via charter school legislation adopted barely a year ago.

Even your local township government could bid to open a school under HB 5923. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, though McLellan told Bridge he authored it.

* A draft document, also crafted under McLellan, would revamp the state’s school funding law.

Today, the state sends a minimum of $6,900 to schools for each student enrolled. That money goes to one school, whether it is a traditional public school or a charter. The 302-page draft bill, summarized in an Oxford Foundation report commissioned by the governor, suggests that student aid be “unbundled” – that the $6,900 be split among various entities providing educational services to individual students.

Students who have enough credits to graduate from high school early would be given a $2,500 grant to continue their education at a Michigan college.

Reactions plentiful, less-than-laudatory

Michigan School Superintendent Mike Flanagan is in favor of reform, but thinks the state should slow down until we know how current reforms, such as lifting the cap on charters and increasing online education options, work.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said this new chapter in school reform is “asking some important questions” that will potentially provide “a richer experience for students.”

However, he said, the administrative infrastructure required to allow funding to follow student activities, perhaps over multiple districts, could prove to be a challenge.

“The essence here is, (the bill is) responding to some things that are happening in education, and let’s get busy doing these things. Is it messy to get there? Yes, but that’s work that needs to be done.

“(But), to flip a switch and do this in 12 months? We may be ahead of ourselves,” Quisenberry said.

Cindy Schumacher, executive director of the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University – the state’s largest charter authorizer – released a statement that read, in part:

“We support the ‘Any Time, Any Place, Any Way and Any Pace’ model of education articulated by Governor Snyder as well as his emphasis on performance funding based on individual student growth. ... Our continued focus will be to ensure that choice, accountability and improved academic performance are the goals of our system of schools. While we continue working to prepare our students academically for success in college, work and life, it is encouraging to see these priorities expanded in Michigan’s broader public education space.”

In the Upper Peninsula, Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools for Bay Mills Community College, is cautiously optimistic. Bay Mills serves a Native American population, and is the authorizer for a number of charters serving low-income populations and minority populations around the state.

“I’ve heard this called the debit-card system,” said Shannon. “A lot has to be fleshed out, (but) it’s potentially good for parents and students.”

 What's the dispute about?

Two of the most controversial elements are:

* A la carte academics – the ability for students to take classes almost anywhere they want, and have the state’s student aid follow them. Some education leaders worry that this concept will undermine traditional neighborhood schools by further eroding state funding. If a student takes world history at the neighboring charter school and a foreign language online, school aid would be split between providers.

But school aid pays for more than teacher salaries. “K-12 schools base their business model on an extremely high share of all kids,” explained Glazer, president of Michigan Future, a nonprofit education advocacy organization. “That allows them to subsidize high cost programming including high school sports and band with the surplus generated by low-cost kids.”

Margaret Trimer-Hartley*, superintendent of University Prep Math and Science charter schools in Detroit, points out that some programs, such as high school science courses, are costly. Will every school continue to support a full host of science courses if some of their students are going to other schools?

Such a system makes sense in the business world, but may not translate well to K-12 education, says Livingston Educational Service Agency Superintendent Dave Campbell.

“When a kid is in three different buildings, “it increases the chances of kids falling through the cracks,” Campbell said. “Most kids need a strong community of adults who care enough about them to hold them accountable.” Dividing time between various schools and online courses “fragments support. It’s not what most teen-agers need – they need structure.”

* “Super choice” – the broadening of charters and online schools. House Bill 5923 allows a lot more groups to open charter schools, from businesses to municipalities. Charters could be single-sex, and charters wouldn’t have to accept all students who come to their door. The bill also allows the creation of more online schools.

Trimer-Hartley argues that urban areas already have a “saturated market.” She worries that more options will foster a “Walmart-ization of the education system: low costs with no customer loyalty.”

Going beyond ‘A’ effort

Michigan already has one of the richest school-choice environments in the nation, earning an “A” from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Education Reform. Michigan moved up to an “A” from a “B” in 2011.

The CER also ranks Michigan 11th in the nation for “parent power.” Its individual assessment of the state’s school-choice environment noted: “Michigan is prohibited from offering private school choices, but it makes up for that in its robust charter law which is expansive and responsive to consumers. A high number of digital learning opportunities and good teacher quality measures keep districts on their toes. And now failing school districts are finding new partners to manage their schools. All of these developments are plusses for parents.”

The CER ranked Michigan’s charter-school law, revised in 2011, fifth-strongest in the nation.

But choice’s academic record is mixed. Some charter schools have records of high achievement among their students; some are among the state’s worst schools. “If we do this, we need to make sure we don’t get more crap charters,” Austin said. “We need better schools.”

Michigan’s current cyber school – the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy – has a spotty academic record. Low-income students scored worse on 8th grade math than similar students in Detroit, or Grand Rapids; among 11th grade students at the cyber school, not one student scored at a proficient level in math.

Because of that record, some educators worry about expanding online options. “Before we charge to create more, shouldn’t we know if what we’re doing now works?” asked Austin. “What you don’t want are signs reading “Free education – call 1-800.”

The Oxford Foundation is accepting public comment on its proposal until Dec. 14. The report will be shipped to Snyder in January, at which point the governor will decide whether to incorporate the reform measures into his 2013 budget.

A spokesman for Snyder stated via email Monday that, "While the governor is reserving comment on the Oxford Foundation proposal until he gets the final draft at the
end of the year, he is looking forward to reviewing the proposal and the associated legislation when they get to his desk."

The other measures, however, are before the Legislature and lawmakers can act on them before year’s end – should they so choose.

“We know if the Legislature adopts this, the superintendents will be busy figuring out how to make this work,” McLellan said. “We know that whatever we write will need to be changed. We’re trying to provide a concept with flexibility.”

What is McLellan’s vision for Michigan if the reforms become law? “I’d hope that we’d find that kids in third grade could actually read,” he said bluntly. “We want to be on our way to having a literate Michigan population. We can’t say that today.”

*Trimer-Hartley and McLellan are members of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

Senior Writer Ron French contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.


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Charles Richards
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 1:15pm
There is crucial, important information missing from this report. What is the cost function of a school? That is, how do costs vary with the number of students? Does the loss of ten percent of the students reduce costs by ten percent? Less? More? Do fixed costs make up a high proportion of costs, so that the loss of ten percent of students result in high overhead being spread over fewer students? Is the cost function a step function with costs remaining constant until a certain number of students are lost? Are there economies of scale in a school? I am troubled by the expansion of the EAA. "The EAA also could potentially take over schools beyond the state’s bottom 5 percent, open its own schools, hand over existing local public school buildings to charter schools, and exempt EAA schools from statewide assessment tests." None of this, particularly the exemption of EAA schools from statewide assessment tests, is a good idea.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 2:10pm
“As we stand at the threshold of the New Michigan, we must embrace profoundly different expectations of our schools, teachers and students. In turn, we must encourage them to thrive by providing a structure that shuns complacency and mediocrity. The reforms being proposed today realign our educational values.” The Governor's words, unfulfilled. Do we really want what we already have, just realigned, cheaper and better? The reforms being proposed today do not support the “New Michigan.” All that is being presented as reform fails to address a fundamental change necessary to provide the “any time, place, way, pace” system of education desired. How we measure academic progress, through the granting of credit based upon a unit of time spent being exposed to predetermined content, is an impenetrable barrier to improvement in learning outcomes. This form of measure forces a factory structure on “education” that shapes the design and delivery of pedagogy and all the reforms being proposed. We must nurture changes that create learning systems instead of credit accumulation. (See, Ken Robinson, three videos) None of Michigan's current reform proposals or legislation (5923, 6004, Oxford, MCEE and more) address this fundamental flaw. The legislature is moving to a significantly different destination, wholesale privatization, in order to satisfy an ideological policy perspective of minimal government. Current and prior reform efforts have danced around the fringes of this core academic criterion, never altering this 18th century time bound system of measurement and pedagogical structure. A reform effort which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards is killing our economy, our culture, and us. Our school reform efforts remain focused on yesterday’s needs. Here’s a hint for reform: “Learning is not done to you. Learning is something you choose to do”. Our children choose to live in a digital world. When are we going to abandon our linear centuries old one? To create a learning journey we must abandon this arcane measure of “academic” progress and those reforms driven by its standard. Focus on learning in every classroom every day with an attitude of incremental continual improvement. Embrace the diversity of real learning, fund that embrace and we will achieve the “any time, place, way and pace” system of education the Governor desires. By the way, has anyone checked McLellan's credentials to be an education reformer?
Sue Harvey
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 5:03pm
I am also troubled by the EEA expansion. As I read it in the Grand Rapids Press article, school districts could be asked to keep closed school bldgs in readiness for possible use as charter or other school. No selling of property for up to five years! Here in Gr Rapids our new superintendent has been outstanding in her work. There is a new spirit of cooperation and communication between all. She is in the process of consolidating schools and making many changes which will save the tax dollars. If this EEA plan would affect our local plans to enrich our kids education while saving money, seems like too much power in the hands of outside group.
matt peterson
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 5:55pm
His credentials are as follows: 1.) Constitutional Lawyer 2.) Principal and/or founding member of Mackinac Center For Public Policy 3.) Helped write or did write last failed attempt @ school vouchers in Michigan....(this I guess could be a credential as education "reformer"). As a public school teacher and parent of two young children....all of this is VERY scary (and not based on much research either!) to me.
Fri, 11/30/2012 - 8:36pm
Those "credentials" are frightening! Why again, is the public even listening to him? Btw, I'd even go so far as to say there is NO academic research (or at least a valid and proven set of research) that supports this. Scary is right!
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 12:28pm
Chuck Fellows suggestion to listen to the Ted material is a good one. I particularly liked the comment: So I think we have to change metaphors. We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish. P.S. You can get a summary of my background in education on my web site. But I have been primarily involved in public policy, including legislative drafting, for 44 years. My assignment has been to take the Governor's policy proposals and put them in statutory format, not to become an educator (I learned how hard that is being an adjunct professor). I do think I am better at drafting legislation than the best certificated teacher.
Independant - B...
Fri, 11/30/2012 - 8:27pm
Balance is the key word here - & these proposed bills in the Legislature are not balanced but are way overreaching. I think that where the state is currently heading, is in the right direction, so let's keep it going. For a long time the public schools had a total monopoly & so there was no accountability or motivation & that's how we got failing schools & a broken system in the first place. I'm not sure if the all-powerful teacher's union has gotten that memo yet but I think local school administrations & local school boards/districts realize that they have to perform... or they're out. Having the EAA take over the failing Detroit schools is a good thing because it helped the other school districts around the state take notice that they have to be responsible or suffer the same fate. This is great because I think schools are finally starting to try to be accountable & it feels like things are improving for the first time in a long time. There is finally some competition from charter & parochial schools for the public schools to worry about. They are on their toes & are nervous which is good because they are finally working hard & not taking their jobs for granted. Competition is an essential thing when breaking up a monopoly. But to now adopt these crazy measures in the legislature & swing the pendulum ALL the way to the other side for competition (which would essentially kill public schools) is NOT a good idea! Then it becomes a wild free-for-all with no accountability or oversight at all. Putting all the power into the hands of a few of the Governor's appointed friends? Yeah - not smart! As much as I did not enjoy the monopoly of the public schools & the teacher's union for so long, I'm not any more comfortable handing over our tax dollars to special interest groups & large corporations with essentially no restrictions on what they can do or how they can spend tax dollars, & who only see our kids as $profit$. It feels like we are already on the right track so why hijack the good momentum that's growing before it can really take off? & Richard McLellan? Really? Haven't we had enough of this guy? Two failed attempts to take over state education system aren't enough for him? He should really just go away but unfortunately I don't think he will.
Ann Perrigo
Sun, 12/09/2012 - 12:19pm
Your second paragraph is right on target! It's too much too fast, leaving no time for puzzling out the details and mechanics of these pieces of legislation. I'm extremely concerned about our schools being taken over by a politically appointed State Board. Where's our local control? Also, didn't we just vote down the idea of Emergency Managers? And, isn't that basically what the EAA would be? Sounds like a foul to me!!
Grove Sandrock
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 6:01pm
As to Richard McLellan's qualifications to reform education, I say: "Those who can, teach. Those who can not, write policy on teaching."