Friday, April 19, 2013

Secret "skunk works" project aims for "voucher-like" program for Michigan schools

The Detroit News broke a huge story today about a secret work group which includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder.  The group has been meeting since December of last year, when the last radical changes to Michigan education were rejected by voters.  Meeting minutes and reports obtained by the News revealed the group's goal was to create a school which costs $5,000 per child annually to operate.

A post on the quality aspects of "vouchers for vendors" in SB 0222, 21f will go out next week.  But this story on the secret "skunk works" group merits skipping to the front of the line.  If you're going to read one education story, or one government story, or one Michigan news story this year, this is it.  But here are some excerpts:

Education reform group forges voucher-like plan for Michigan
By Chad Livengood Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Lansing — A secret work group that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder has been meeting since December to develop a lower-cost model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers.
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a "skunk works" project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a "value school" that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.
Each "value school" student would receive a "Michigan Education Card" to pay for their "tuition" — similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor.
Students could use leftover money on the "EduCard" for high school Advanced Placement courses, music lessons, sport team fees, remedial education or cyber courses, according to an outline of the advisory team's agenda.
Snyder confirmed Thursday the existence of the work group, but told The News "there is not a specific outcome" for the project.
The initiative is "very unnerving" given the history of Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, a work group member, in pursuing vouchers, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, who was unaware of the "skunk works" project. A voucher system lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools — something prohibited by the state Constitution.
"This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings," Austin said. "That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions."
The group had one educator, Paul Galbenski, an Oakland Schools business teacher and Michigan's 2011 Educator of the Year, but he left the group.
"It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system," Galbenski said. "That's when I started questioning my involvement."
Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the "skunk works" alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin's secret development of fighter planes during World War II.
In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use "alternative" email accounts.
McLellan said the other participants are justified in using private emails. "Well, they should," he said. "It's not a government project."
"Isn't a skunk works by definition unorganized, backroom?" he asked rhetorically.
[Snyder's chief information officer, David Behen, who leads the group] said he "purposely didn't put a bunch of teachers on (the panel)" to generate a different approach to delivering K-12 education through rapidly changing technology.
The story got picked up all over Michigan, and beyond:
  • Public School Advocate Diane Ravitch: "The article describes the plan as “reform,” but as usual, the real intent of this treat eggy is to abandon public education. When the privatizers say “the money should follow the child,” what they mean is that the funding should go anywhere: to religious schools, private schools, cyber schools, for-profit vendors. That way, they drain essential funding from public schools, which will lose programs and staff, this facilitating the growth of the private sector."
  • Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: "One member of the [Michigan "skunk works" group] is Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group, a Grand Rapids company. As I blogged here last July, Huizenga shows up as a player in Indiana campaign finance. Founder J.C. Huizenga has donated nearly $200,000 to GOP candidates in Indiana over the past several years, including a $5,000 donation to the House Republican Campaign Committee last year. In 2010, he gave $30,000 to the American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher group operated out of Terre Haute by Citizens United legal adviser Jim Bopp."
  • Eclectablog
  • The Huffington Post
  • Wonkette
Several lawmakers also reacted:
  • Sen. Gretchen Whitmer: “The Governor's true agenda has finally been exposed and it unsurprisingly is built on backroom deals and boardroom profits,” said Whitmer. “The information uncovered from these secretive meetings has confirmed what we've feared all along, that this Governor's focus is not on what's best for Michigan's people or our kids, but instead on helping out-of-state special interests profit off of them.”
  • Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood: "If the Governor is willing to make a profit off of our most precious resource – our children – what could possibly be off limits?"
  • Sen. Bert Johnson: "Our focus should be on providing our students with a quality education, not a cheap one."
  • State Board of Ed. President John Austin (on Twitter):
    • "For-profit school market goal? Take down superintendents, school boards & teachers unions." and
    • "This is the wrong way to shape #education--by excluding teachers/educators/parents."
  • Oakland County clerk/register of deeds Lisa Brown (on Twitter): Secret Group in Michigan Plans Voucher-Style "Reform" - is Gov willing to enroll his kids in this "ed program"?
Update: 4/20/ 8:30 a.m.
Chad Livengood follows up yesterday's big story with reaction from Gov. Snyder.  The Governor doesn't see what's wrong with the secrecy of his group, or the goal to do education on the cheap:

Snyder defends secret project to reform education system
By Chad Livengood Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday defended his administration's involvement in a secret project that is trying to develop a cheaper way to deliver public education through a voucher-like funding system
Four state government employees, including the state's chief information and technology officers, were directed to use private email accounts to correspond on the project, according to records obtained by The News.
Snyder, who has made government transparency a top priority since taking office in 2011, said questions about the education reform team's discreet actions were "overblown."
Feel free to discuss in the comments.

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