Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Q and A: Ron Styka, Meridian Township Trustee

We are very pleased to bring you a Q and A with Meridian Township Trustee Ron Styka. Trustee Styka has been a resident of Meridian Township since 1978. Trustee Styka is an attorney who served as an Assistant Attorney General for close to 40 years, and served on the Okemos School Board for 22 years. Trustee Styka was elected to the Township Board in 2012. He has dedicated his life to public service. Trustee Styka answered these questions via email.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes to Michigan’s K-12 system you’ve seen over your years of involvement with public education?

A: The “Proposal A” System of State Funding of our public schools, which began in 1994, was the biggest change to Michigan’s K-12 system during my tenure on the Okemos School Board (1990-2012). Prior to Prop A, the voters within a school district determined the level of funding. One large negative of the old system was that funding varied radically from district to district. And Michigan was replete with both “rich districts” and “poor districts,” providing very different educations to students. The voter approved property tax funding system was common throughout the nation, and courts had begun to find the resultant disparities to be unconstitutionally unequal. Although no court challenge was pending, Michigan chose to voluntarily change to a less unequal state-based funding system.

At first Prop A seemed to be a positive for Michigan’s schools. However, as Michigan’s economy eroded and, as a result, sales and other state taxes produced less revenue, the legislature stopped fully funding public school districts. Indeed, funds that were dedicated by the law to be spent on K-12 public schools under Prop A were often spent by the State on other “educational” purposes.

All of this has resulted in severe cuts to educational programs in virtually all school districts throughout the State. In Okemos, for example, the numbers of counselors, librarians, co-curricular activities, and many enhancement programs have been reduced. The District has been forced to turn to the private non-profit Okemos Education Foundation to fund school clubs and even textbook purchases. After 8 or 9 years of major budget cuts, there is literally nothing left to cut but educational programs that directly benefit the students in the classroom.

Q: Would you say the changes being discussed in Lansing now like proposed 21f and the things coming out of the “skunk works” group are dramatic changes or tweaks to the system?

A: In my opinion, the changes being proposed in Lansing will completely undermine the public school system in Michigan. To the extent that some school districts are not providing the highest quality educational services to their students, the root cause is lack of funds. School districts spend roughly 80% of their revenue on personnel. These personnel are the educational professionals that care about our students and use their professional expertise to educate them. Our colleges and universities train educators to provide individualized educations that reach students in the unique way that each student learns. These professionals deserve a professional wage. Legislative ignorance of current classroom techniques and demands on our educators has resulted in a callous attitude when it comes to funding schools. Legislators often have the mistaken view that teachers are “part-time” workers and that educating a student is easy to do. They mistakenly think that anyone with knowledge of a subject can teach it, ignoring the need for an educator to know how to teach diverse students, who learn in different ways and at different paces.

It is similarly a huge mistake to think that online learning, without the direct supervision and assistance of a professional educator is a panacea that will reduce educational costs and increase performance. A curriculum must not only be developed, but must be tailored to the student, not in a general sense, but in an ongoing basis. Similarly, diverting funds to corporately created educational institutions only reduces funds available for our public schools at a time when every dollar counts.

Q: We hear about cuts to per pupil funding from the state in the news, but aren’t Okemos Public Schools able to make up the difference with local funding?

A: Under Proposal A school districts are NOT permitted add locally produced and approved funding to the funding provided by the State. The periodic millage elections that we hear about are required under Proposal A and are uniform for all districts. Further the 6 mills that must be periodically approved do not go to the local district, but directly to the State treasury.

There are two types of millages that can be used to supplement a district’s budget in very limited ways. First, district voters can approve a “Sinking Fund” (or building and site fund), which can only be used for specific building and physical plant maintenance items. This can help a district, in that it reduces the demand on the district’s general fund and frees moneys up for spending on instruction. However, while helpful, these are generally small in amount. Second, district voters can approve bonds for construction of buildings or the purchase of technology. These also have a secondary and relatively small impact on a district’s budget.

Q: A lot of the changes being discussed seem to talk about “choice.” What’s wrong with offering parents and students choices in terms of online classes and other options?

A: “Choice” sounds a lot better than it is in reality. For close to 20 years now parents have had the opportunity to send their students to a district other than their home district—the “schools of choice” program. The idea is that poor performing districts will lose students to high performing districts. Somehow, having fewer high quality dedicated students, with parents dedicated to getting their children the best possible education, is supposed to result in the poor performing district improving. The logic fails on its face. It not only does not work, it cannot work. Instead, poor performing districts have been losing some of their best students to neighboring districts. Unfortunately, it is these students and their parents who are the natural drivers of improvement. But they are no longer in the district.

A second “choice” program that has failed to-date is the charter school program. Under this reform idea, schools are created, usually by corporations, to compete with the public schools. Again, somehow losing the best students and their parents to a charter school is supposed to incentivize a public school system to improve, even though the drivers of improvement are now at the competing charter school. It has not worked. Further, these for-profit (even if in the guise of a non-profit) charter schools have been riddled with financial scandal and have not performed as well as traditional public schools.

Q: What kind of school system could you run with $5,000 per student like the Governor’s “skunk works” group is talking about?

A: A school system funded at $5000 per student would likely look as follows: No co-curriculars, no physical education, no music, no art, no AP classes, no honors classes, out-of-date texts, little or no technology, no busses to transport students, large class sizes, no individualized education. It would have shorter school days and fewer school days per year.

Q: If a plan like the “skunk works” plan were implemented, what do you think Michigan K-12 would look like in 10 years? 20 years?

A: In 10 years, there would be no high performing public schools left. This year Okemos High has been ranked third in the State and in the top 1% nationally. There would be no hope of any public school performing well under the “skunk works” plan.

In 20 years, public schools would be attended only by the most economically underprivileged students, and they would receive only a basic education. Those with the financial wherewithal to transport their student to the better “choice” schools would do so. Those with the ability to afford private schools would do so. The promise of the Michigan Constitution of a free education for all Michigan’s children would be semantics and nothing else.

Q: Some people think the expansion of charters and cyber schools are really about privatizing public education. What do you think?

A: I firmly believe that the charter school movement and the cyber school movements are aimed squarely at privatizing education.

Q: This seems to be playing out along party lines in the Legislature. Do you think these measures are consistent with conservative principles like local control? Do you see this as a partisan issue?

A: Ironically, the “skunk works” plans are antithetical to true conservative principles, like local control. In fact, the inability for a community to decide on the amount it is willing to spend on its own schools and on the level of its own school tax are also contrary to traditional conservatism.

Excellent public schools should not be a partisan issue. Anti-unionism has led to a partisan split on public school funding and program support. True conservatives, who prefer local control, need to speak out within their political party and take the politics out of K-12 education.

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