Mix school choice, state incentives and you get a $400,000 high-schooler

In Birmingham, the school district got $440,000 for one out-of-town high-schooler.

In nearby Novi, the schools received $320,000 for an empty desk.

That’s what you get when you mix a governor’s reform agenda with schools threading the needle between school choice and protesting parents.

The two districts in Oakland County had long opted out of Michigan’s school choice system to allow students – and their state aid money – to attend schools outside their home community. But in recent months – driven, say local school leaders, by darkening financial projections – both took advantage of provisions in state policy to crack open their doors, in exchange for big bucks from Lansing.

For example, when the school board in Birmingham said yes to school choice earlier this year, it wasn’t really about a change of heart on education policy, but because it immediately qualified the district for $430,000 in state “best practices” money.

In 2012, the Legislature set aside $80 million for the 2012-13 school year to provide $52 in additional per-pupil funding to districts that meet seven out of eight "best practices" in education.They range from self-insuring for health plans to physical education plans, and include school choice.

Birmingham Superintendent Daniel Nerad said at the meeting, “If it didn't have the possibility of helping the district's budget situation, this would not be before you.” Board members, in fact, took turns criticizing the choice policy, but voted for it – with a catch.

There would be six spots open in one grade in one school, which was enough to bring the financial windfall to the district.

The vote also earned a scolding from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which opined on its blog, “It is unfortunate to see public school officials, whose mission should be to provide the best education possible for students, act in this manner.”

Paul DeAngelis, deputy superintendent, couldn’t care less.

“When (the state) can explain to me how Schools of Choice is a best practice in education, I’ll be happy to listen,” he said. “The ideal is that Schools of Choice provides for students that aren’t being served well (by their residential schools), to go elsewhere. That’s not how it’s being used. It’s being used by districts to take students from others, for their own financial purposes.”

Birmingham’s workaround, he added, was designed to get the maximum benefit and the least financial damage, “a model that would fit the spirit but wouldn’t have long-term impact on us.”

Birmingham spends about $12,000 per pupil, DeAngelis said, and choice students from other districts invariably bring in per-pupil amounts well below that figure, which means the district would take a substantial loss on each one they admit.

In this case, however, it will be only one. Even though six seats were opened, only a single family asked for admittance.

Still, that makes the choice score: Birmingham 1, Novi 0.

Novi’s district is similar to Birmingham – long skeptical of school choice, generally affluent, supportive of its public schools, and eager to not leave a single available aid dollar on the table.

“Our community is not receptive to a broad-based Schools of Choice option, so we tried to identify how we could meet the letter of the law to receive the money,” said Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews.

Matthews said he knew the district wouldn’t be able to meet one of the state’s eight best practices – their gym and health education fell short – but to receive the best-practices bonus of $52 per pupil, they had to meet at least seven. That left enrolling non-resident students under Schools of Choice.

“We identified our (International Baccalaureate) diploma program as having seats available,” Matthews said. The IB diploma, as it’s known, is earned through a demanding academic curriculum that includes community service and a 4,000-word essay. To be properly prepared, incoming juniors would likely already be top students at their old schools. It was a way, Matthews noted, to pre-select a small group of excellent scholars as the avenue to state dollars.

“We were trying to meet the letter of the law, but also recognized the citizens in our community pay a premium for their houses because of the schools, and support them through higher taxes and bond issues,” he said.

In the end, no one even applied to the IB diploma program. The district, however, still collected “about $320,000,” Matthews said.

“They have established the rules,” he said, “and we play by them. We met the requirement. We don’t feel bad about that.”

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Larry Stephens
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 8:55am
It's a sad day when apparently two of the more wealthy school districts in Michigan feel they are justified in finding a loophole to take advantage of the rest of the taxpayers of this state to get more and more, without really changing a thing. What ever happened to honesty and integrity. If I were a parent in those districts, I would be ashamed. What kind of message is that sending to our next generation of leaders?
Novi Parent
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 6:59am
As a Novi resident, I say kudos to our school board and administration on how they handled this situation. If they were not working to maximize revenue for our school district, I'd be extremely disappointed.
Tue, 06/25/2013 - 11:16am
Birmingham only recieves 83% of the MINIMUM foundation allowance (which is set at $6,966/student). Effectively Birmingham "gets" only $5,757/student from the state. The rest, all of the rest, comes from local sources. So, for Birmingham, Bloomfield, Troy, anda host of other districts are net contributors to hundreds of outstate districts. This "windfall" represents only $48 per child on a one time basis. This also ignores the fact that holdharmless districts (like Birmingham) had $122/student stripped away from the already state contribution when 20j was line itemed out of the school aid budget.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:10am
This is similar to people crying about companies like Apple, GE etc. not paying enough in taxes even though they are playing by the current set of rules. We shouldn't fault Novi, Birmingham, GE, Apple etc. We should fault the legislative process that allowed these scenarios to happen and which are quite often driven by special interest groups and lobbyists. Rather than blame the constituents that are playing by the current set of rules - call your congressman and ask them to change the rules!
Mike R
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:28am
I completely agree with Bob. In the current political climate, where far right ideologues denigrate and disparage teachers and do anything they can to siphon money away from public schools, one can hardly blame the school boards and administrators for turning the ideologues' stupidity, greed, and myopia against them. It's elementary survival of the fittest (but since the far right doesn't believe in evolution, they probably don't understand the reference).
Joe Dohm
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 12:38pm
I know! Who could blame large corporations for manipulating the political system to create tax loopholes for themselves? This is not the same, since the school districts actually have no power over the state funding rules that govern them.
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 4:39pm
Who can blame the large unoins for their robust pension and benefits that the State education funds are paying for? It seems the last time the large unoins took something they wanted to the people for a vote it was soundly turned down. Might that not suggest that if it weren't for their lobbyists education wouldn't cost as much in Michigan?
Jon Blakey
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:22am
Coercion breeds subversion according to William Glasser. Just another example of what incentives and punishment do to "improve" education. Wonder why we choose to ignore how Finland improved their schools collaboratively and continue on these senseless practices based on puritanical ideology.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:43am
Pretty slick move on the part of Birmingham and Novi, they get some extra money from the state and meet their objective of keeping out as many African American students as they can.
John Q,
Sun, 06/23/2013 - 8:44pm
That would be news to the African American students in Novi schools.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:46am
I think I love Mr. DeAngelis. He hit the nail squarely on the head. Also, an unintended (or maybe not) consequence of this choice is that the neighborhood schools lose students, continue their decline and then are often left with the neediest students (i.e. students whose parents aren't able to or involved enough to transport them. Instead of staying and fighting for the neighborhood school, the parents bolt at the slightest issue. When I taught in Detroit, I knew kids who were on the fourth or fifth school by the fourth grade. Parents didn't like a teacher? Out you go to try somewhere else! Kid complained he was being "picked on"? Let's try someplace else! Principals were sometimes afraid to properly discipline a child knowing that an angered parent could yank the child out and the school would lose the funding. As I am wont to say-choice is a good thing; too much choice often is not.
David J.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:57am
Thank you, Nancy, for shedding light on an "unintended consequence" of legislation that obviously is in need of revision -- I don't see this aspect being uncovered by other media sources. Unfortunately, we continue to see often poorly deliberated educational policy being "fast-tracked" by idealogue state legislators -- the result will continue to be the demise of effective public education.
Eunice Burnsi
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 10:22am
Every day, our legislature (with some exceptions) proves again how utterly out of touch with the real world they are. Our emphasis should be the best education possible for all; not just a select few.
Joseph Kristy, M. Ed
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 10:42am
That money could be best used to make ALL SCHOOLS - GOOD SCHOOLS. I taught for 23 years in DPS. We needed help not constant critism. Struggling schools need smaller class size for better teacher student ratio, so that especially younger students get more attention from the teacher. Teachers need paid workshops so that they can keep improving professionally. Struggling students need Saturday and Summer tutorial programs.
Charles Richards
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 12:21pm
Mr. DeAngelis is not being quite honest when he says, “The ideal is that Schools of Choice provides for students that aren’t being served well (by their residential schools), to go elsewhere. That’s not how it’s being used. It’s being used by districts to take students from others, for their own financial purposes.” Why would a student leave a district if they felt they were being well served? Yes, the receiving district gets more money, but that wouldn't be possible if the student was happy in their old district. In point of fact, Mr. DeAngelis is perfectly describing his own district's behavior. They have gamed the system for their own financial benefit without providing any benefit.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 2:02pm
What Birmingham and Novi did are the best possible examples of bringing free market practices to public education. They are maximizing their return by incurring the least amount of risk. Well done. So in this scenario, did free market practices yield a benefit to consumers or taxpayers? I'd love to hear what Gov. Snyder thinks.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 10:07pm
Me too. But he has absolutely no clue what is being done.
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 11:57am
I completely agree with you Brendan. As a GP resident, I'm wondering why GPPSS didn't do this as well.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:39pm
Ah, the politicians played at their own game. That is a great question- how does students moving into a district equate to best practices? Some of our politicians think that sending a student who is technically an 11th grader but has 4th or 5th grade abilities to "better" schools it will fix the problem. But some of us know that some also want this to happen to degrade the good public schools so they can cut funding. Love what Novi did, you want in? IB only. Don't many charters do that already? Kid not meeting the standards or causes problems- boot them, but the public schools don't get that money. Btw, most of the politicians passing this legislation don't care because they send their kids to private schools. As far as they are concerned, they woul stick any other kid in front of a computer and who cares what happens. 2014 can't come soon enough...
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:48pm
And tell me again what schools cherry pick their students?
Chris B.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 4:12pm
I agree with other comments. What did those school districts do wrong or different from other school districts? They are somehow doing something under-handed simply because they adopted school of choice grudgingly and after years of open disagreement with it?? I don't believe that means the motives of Novi and Birmingham were any different than other school districts. I don't believe all the other school districts switched to 'choice' in the name of diversity or some other altruistic mindset. They did it for fiscal reasons. They felt like they had room to handle the extra students and more students means more money. I'm not suggesting greed here but rather doing what they have to do to make ends meet. Was the criteria to qualify for the extra per pupil funding poorly written...perhas too loose? Yes, I would agree with that. I wonder, was a full study done to include all school districts that receive the extra funding or was the focus exclusive to Novi and B'ham because the situation raised your ire? If you did not do a full study then I would bet that we will find is that other districts had the same windfall but because they were early-adopters of this 'choice' policy they are not in the cross-hairs.
Ed Meny
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 8:42pm
In my opinion there is no loophole here! These administrators are doing what our short-sighted Governor and Legislators have told them to do to obtain funding. They are doing what is in the best interest of their districts and as the Michigan government ordered.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:30pm
So what do you get when you have politicians running education? Flimflam men selling medicinal liquids to the highest bidders. Disgusting.
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 9:58pm
You have stuck your toe into the surface of "Best Practices" pond, but do you have the courage to investigate WHERE they come from? THAT is the core of all this. Where do all these items (except #8) appear together? Or is this topic "off limits" for CFM? Bill Mayes was on the right path:http://bridgemi.com/2013/04/guest-commentary-educators-ready-to-join-gov...Investigate, it's NO SECRET to those doing it in Lansing.
David J.
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 10:10pm
Thank you, Hector, for providing the link to a prior Bridge article, advocating the inclusion of educators in the school reform dialogue -- vs. Gov. Snyder's hand-picked lawyer and lobbyist-based individuals (i.e. the Oxford Plan crowd, "Skunk works" panel, etc.). We are in a depressing state of non-transparent, political/agenda-based legislative initiatives that continue to degrade our public schools THROUGHOUT the state.