Tuesday, May 27, 2014

No charter operator has claimed Musekgon Heights, citizens submit proposal

After the charter company quit Michigan's first fully privatized school district, the only replacement to step up is the local community.

We recently posted about charter management company Mosaica quitting the Muskegon Heights school district, the state's first fully privatized district.  Okemos Parents for Schools, May 1, 2014.  An emergency manager dismantled the public school district and handed the whole thing over to a private operator.  But after a year plagued with scandal, Mosaica quit the district as it couldn't turn a profit. 

The emergency manager sought a replacement charter operator but the first deadline came and went with no applications ... except for one by the local community:
But activists like Mary Valentine, a former state representative, are hoping the district doesn't wind up in the hands of any for-profit company, period.
"When you have for-profit operators coming and going, we're concerned that students may not be able to have that kind of stability that they need," she says. 
"What the state came in and did, did not help. So maybe the people need to run it. Maybe somebody needs to listen to what the people want."
She and other citizen activists today released what they're calling a "Citizens Request for Proposals" today in a press release. 
Citizens’ Request for Proposal
Muskegon Heights Public Schools
May 23, 2014
Those students who still remain in the Muskegon Heights Public School district did not cause the financial problems facing the district. They deserve an education commensurate with the students in surrounding districts. These are the students who don’t have a choice to leave, and we have a responsibility to them and this community to provide them with a good education.
We, the undersigned citizens are requesting the following:
1. The Muskegon Heights School District can no longer allow students to be used by for-profit companies to bolster their bottom line and cannot be allowed to enter the controversial and unproven Education Achievement Authority School District
2. Students must have a stable and nurturing learning environment. We cannot allow the high rates of teacher turnover in charter schools to continue to negatively affect the learning environment
3. A democratically elected school board must be given decision-making powers within this district to ensure proper use of taxpayer dollars
4. Adequate class sizes with research-proven student-to-teacher ratios
5. Access to professional, age appropriate libraries for all of our students
6. Fair and consistent discipline for all students
7. Appropriate special education services for all the students who qualify
8. Strong programs for music, art, drama, physical education and sports, commensurate with surrounding school districts
9. Counselors, social workers, psychologists and a school nurse available to all students
We cannot allow the students of our community to continue to be test subjects for experimental education models. We need a properly-funded school district with qualified teachers and adequate class sizes. Our community deserves to have control over its neighborhood schools and the ability to hold our school officials accountable. [Michigan Radio, May 23, 2014.]

New book shows public schools outperform private schools

A new book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, demonstrates that public school students outperform private school students over time.  The book calls into question voucher programs and public funding of privately run charters which have grown radically in Michigan.

The book examines data from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, as well as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 and accounts for several factors such as race and socioeconomic status.  The book observed that although  "public school students started kindergarten with lower math achievement than demographically similar private school peers. By the time they reached the 5th grade, however, they were outperforming those same peers in the subject." EdWeek.org, May 13, 2014

The study hypothesized two explanations for the public school advantage:
First, public school teachers are more likely to be certified, meaning they are required to continue to take professional-development courses that expose them to the latest research on teaching math.
Second, perhaps as a result of that professional development, their instructional approaches more closely align with recent studies suggesting that test results improve when students know how to reason and communicate mathematical concepts rather than merely learning to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. [Id.]
The book has been poorly received by voucher advocates.

Legislature considers moving testing out of Ed. Dept, to Treasury

Last week a plan surfaced to move control of student testing from the Michigan Department of Education to the Michigan Department of Treasury.  Ostensibly the move is meant to put the testing in the hands of a more responsive department, but even Republican lawmakers have acknowledged it's really little more than political payback.

The Department of Education has been planning on administering the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) next year in place of the venerable MEAP.  In part, the move is to satisfy federal guidelines which the current MEAP does not meet.  Some lawmakers would prefer a new MEAP that meets the federal guidelines, but the Department of Education has said it cannot create a new federally compliant MEAP in that time frame.

At least one Republican lawmaker acknowledged the move was not really about policy or the administration of the test:
"Optimally, it should be at the department of education, but I see this as a timeout for bad behavior," Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) said. [MLive.com, May 21, 2014.]
This is not a new idea.  Under Governor Engler Treasury oversaw the MEAP from 1999 to 2003.  On the Treasury's watch, the MEAP scoring and distribution of results saw long delays. 

Further belying any legitimate policy reason for the switch, there has been suggestion that having usurped control of the testing, Treasury farm implementation of the test back out to the Education Department.

The State Board of Education is established by Michigan's constitution and it's members are popularly elected.  Conversely, the Governor appoints the head of the Treasury.

The State Board of Education issued a unanimous statement condemning the move:
“Removing responsibility from the Michigan Department of Education for any of these elements would weaken the framework schools need to improve student outcomes for all children, and will undermine efforts to help our highest-risk children succeed in school,” the statement said. [The Detroit News, May 27, 2014.]
That State Board of Education has both Democratic and Republican members.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What happens when a community loses its school?

Some time ago we wrote about the importance of the connection between a community and its school.  A tragic result of the misguided education policies Michigan has pursued is providing stark evidence of principle.

Many communities are built around schools.  This something we know very well in Okemos.  For that matter, those of us in Haslett, Grand Ledge, Williamston and many other places know it as well.  In a February 15 op-ed in the Lansing State Journal we wrote:
Along the way, they are also doing something more. As people come together at school board meetings, athletic events, concerts, plays, and parent groups they are building a sense of community. These small acts of civic engagement may not seem significant, but in aggregate they are what bind our communities together.
All of these events happen because these are public schools — because these are our schools. We are proud of our schools because they are ours, and because they are ours we work hard to make them something to be proud of. This powerful incentive is what makes the public vision work. In the public vision, schools belong to communities and to citizens. [Okemos Parents for Schools, March 8, 2014]
But increasingly education policy is Michigan is chipping away at public schools in favor of for-profit charter schools, cyber schools, a privatized district, a state takeover district, and other experiments.  This is bad policy and it's bad for the children of our state.  But it's also bad for the communities in which these schools are located.

Our state's current policies towards public schools and the lack of funding is driving schools into distress, or destroying them altogether.  Set aside for a moment the damage done to public schools by charters and cyber schools.  Over the past few years massive funding cuts to schools have driven many districts into the red.  Late last year the count was 56 districts running a deficit.  Okemos Parents for Schools, Sept. 12, 2013.  Also, Muskegon Heights was dissolved and handed over to a charter company, and Saginaw Buena Vista was dissolved and absorbed into neighboring districts.  (It's important to note this did not have to happen to Buena Vista.  While the state would not come to the aid of Buena Vista, the state did save Pontiac public schools and is pumping millions into Muskegon Heights's charter district.)  Already the loss of its public school is having an impact on Buena Vista as explored in an story on MLive.com.
The sign in front of the former Buena Vista High School reminds passersby of a community meeting in August.
Not this August. Last August. The sign is a relic of the Buena Vista School District's dissolution. Today, a year after a financial crisis led to the demise of the 57-year-old district, the blue Knights of the Buena Vista Community School District are a memory.
To some, it's a loss that strikes at the core of the community located on the eastern edge of the city of Saginaw.
"There's no Friday night football or basketball. That's gone," said Richard Syrek, superintendent of the Saginaw Intermediate School District. "There's no reason to live in Buena Vista ... Buena Vista itself is irrelevant."
The community feels disjointed, said Christina Dillard, Buena Vista Township treasurer.
"We have really nothing in the community to rally us together," she said.
"You can see the lines being defined as to which (new) district you belong to. It's like everyone is a foreigner. We don't have a home base. That part is really missed."
. . .
Without a local school district and the structure it brings, Buena Vista's future and its identity is uncertain, one resident says.
"I don't see much for Buena Vista. I would like to feel that I'm wrong on that," said Barbara Amon-Weigandt, a former Buena Vista School District Board of Education member and longtime resident. [MLive.com, May 19, 2014]
It's not hard to imagine how losing a district would impact other communities.  What if kids on your street went separate ways to a collection of for-profit charters, or "went to school" through an cyber school and never interacted with their neighbors?  What if there were no football games or plays to bring the community together?  What about in coming years when graduates never went to high school in the community (because there wasn't one)?  Will they identify with your community at all?

Unfortunately, Buena Vista will have the answers to these questions all too soon.  And people in that community are already missing their public school.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

More insight into EAA finances, irresponsible spending

The EAA is back in the news as lawmakers push forward in expanding the takeover district statewide.  The latest revelation is extravagant spending on and by the Chancellor John Covington even as students are doing without basics.

The Detroit News broke the story:
. . . The News published a story Monday that detailed nearly $240,000 in charges on two cards issued to Chancellor John Covington.
Among the findings: $178,000 was spent on hotel and airfare to 36 cities from April 2012 to February, while another $10,000 was spent on gas for Covington’s chauffeured car, $25,000 for IKEA furniture and $8,000 combined at Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Meijer, Home Depot and Lowe’s. [Detroit News, May 12, 2014]
The House passed legislation to expand the takeover district statewide, Okemos Parents for Schools, May 21, 2014, but the Senate has not yet passed the bill.

The News also contrasted the lavish spending with the resources the EAA has allocated to kidsL
The article quoted teachers saying they taught in rooms without heat or air conditioners and often had to pay out of their own pockets for pencils and other basic supplies. Among the trips taken by Covington, his staff and teachers were conferences and summits in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.  [Detroit News, May 12, 2014]
We'll be contacting members of the senate as this comes up for a vote.  Contact us at okemosparentsforschools@gmail.com if you want notification.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Charter Company Quits Muskegon Heights

Yet another experiment with education in Michigan has failed.

In 2012 Muskegon Heights became the country's first fully privatized school district when it was handed over to a charter company by its emergency manager.  The charter company's tenure running the school system had been plagued with scandal but this week the charter company called it quits for a reason which had nothing to do with education - it wasn't making any money.

As the new Snyder administration slashed K-12 funding the Muskegon Heights Public School District was hit badly and driven into emergency management.  Governor Snyder's appointee to run the district, Donald Weatherspoon, decided he would take the drastic step of firing every district employee and turning the entire system over to Mosaica Education, a charter company.  Michigan Radio, July 17, 2012

This meant the people of Muskegon Heights would no longer have local democratic control of their schools.  It also meant reduced pay for teachers (base pay of $35,000 per year), and planned student teacher ratios of 25:1.  Also, tax payers would continue to pay on the debt incurred by the public schools while the new charter district took the state aid and operated without the burden of the debt.  But the promise was the school's financial situation would be stabilized.

In the months that followed the charter district was chaotic.  Mosaica had trouble opening and cancelled homecoming activities.  Michigan Radio, September 18, 2012.  Of the 80 teachers the Mosaica hired, 20 quit in the first three months.
“It’s confusing because I go from this learning process to this learning process to that learning process and it’s just ridiculous how some teachers leave and we have to start all over and learn something new,” Muskegon Heights High School senior Tony Harris said, “It’s just, it’s crazy.” [Michigan Radio, December 2, 2012]
Veteran teachers cited reasons such as lack of clear discipline policy, work expectations and the right supplies to teach students with poor reading skills played a big part in why they left.  The High School also went through three principles in six months.  Michigan Radio, February 7, 2013.

The charter company's answer to the shortage was not to improve conditions, or increase pay, or offer additional professional development, or reduce class sizes, but to hire uncertified teachers.  An investigation by Michigan Radio revealed that 10 percent of the charter district's teachers were not certified.  Michigan Radio, February 12, 2013.
Mosaica Education Chief Executive Officer Mike Connelly says the company hired some teachers who weren’t certified yet. But he says the company verified the teachers were eligible for certification. He says Mosaica expected those teachers to then obtain proper certifications from Michigan’s Department of Education. “The process of getting certified can only be done by the teacher themselves,” Connelly noted.
“When we contact Michigan Department of Education and they say ‘pending approval,’ those are the type of things that we had these teachers notified, that if you can’t prove certification that you will no longer be able to work,” Zachery-Ross said. [Id.]
But as Michigan Radio pointed out, the law requires teachers to obtain certification before they begin teaching.

The charter district and Mosaica also failed to comply with federal law in providing special education.  Social workers were not provided as required by law.  Further,
It wasn’t just social workers that Muskegon Heights was missing. A different report from a separate complaint says special education students were not given speech and language, physical therapy, mobility and other services. It says teachers didn’t get help they needed for kids with autism, or with visual and hearing impairments. Students also lacked instructional materials they needed to make progress under Michigan’s Merit Curriculum. [Michigan Radio, May 23, 2013]
But neither the breaches in Michigan's teacher certification requirements nor the breaches of federal law prompted the radical state intervention that losing money had, and Mosaica continued operating the district. 

However, when Mosaica didn't make any money, that was the end of it.  "To be brutally honest - they had to be brutally honest to themselves as well with us - in their model as a for profit company, their profit was not there," Weatherspoon told Michigan Radio.

Now, the tax payers will borrow another $1.4 million from the state to pay off Mosaica.  The state will lend the money to the old public school district, now just a shell that money flows through to the charter district.  The old public school district will keep the debt, and taxpayers will pay it off eventually.  The cash will flow through the charter district to Mosaica. 

The charter district plans to hire a new charter company to operate the school next year:
“We want to make sure that we get it right. And we certainly want to make sure that we have an operator with the experience that is needed to manage the culture that exists in our community today," charter board President Arthur Scott said.  [Michigan Radio, April 26, 2014]
 There does not appear to be any discussion about handing the district back to is people via local control.