Sunday, April 28, 2013

Building a Continent of Support for Public Schools

Bad news and good news for you to start the week.  Bad news first.

Funding Structural and Annual Level - The Budgets
Budgets passed by the House and Sensate are terrible.  They have minor differences, but they both have:
  • Funding cuts (from $2 to $52 per pupil less in the House budget, and from $34 to $43 per pupil less in the Senate budget).
  • "Vouchers for vendors" found in Section 21f. We've written about this extensively.
  • $8 million slush fund for the EAA on top of its per pupil allowance.
Michigan Parents for Schools has a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the legislative budgets along with Gov. Snyder's proposal (which isn't any better).  School Aid budgets: no good news. Michigan Parents for Schools. April 28, 2013.

Organizing - Parent Power in Texas, Tennessee ... and Michigan
The good news is, parents are fighting for public schools all over the country - and we are winning.

One parent on the list forwarded this story about parents standing up to well-financed corporate interests in Tennessee:
In December 2012, we–a small group of active public school parents–sat around a dining room table to discuss how we could combat the education reform bills we anticipated during the upcoming Tennessee state legislative session. We were very aware that we faced an uphill battle because Tennessee has become Ground Zero for education reform over the past few years. The Republican super-majority in both the state House and Senate appeared poised to pass a variety of corporate school reform bills. The fervor for this reform was fueled by our Governor, State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman (Michelle’ Rhee’s ex-husband), Speaker of the House, Mayor of Nashville, and “part-time” Tennessee resident, Michelle Rhee. ... A total of 2 million dollars was spent on pushing the agenda of these outside reform groups.
This December meeting hatched a new statewide, nonpartisan organization called Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools. The founding members brought various talents and political views to the effort. We used our individual talents and viewpoints to formulate and disseminate a message that had broad appeal–” Less government, local control, fiscal restraint, help ALL TN children.” ...
... Although legislators had long heard from teachers, teacher unions, and school districts, meetings with active, well-informed parents came as a total surprise to many at the Capitol. Legislators often dismiss concerns voiced by teachers, administrators, and school districts as self-serving and, ironically, not in the best interest of children. However, parents, upon whom legislators could pin no possible ill motives, were an entirely different matter. How could they refuse to listen to parents? We were key stakeholders in the education conversation and they did listen to what we had to say.
... Vouchers were killed as a result of Republican party infighting and the statewide charter authorizer died on the final day of the legislature due to a disagreement between the Senate and the House. Bottom line: Even though other factors outside of our control ultimately killed the bills, we feel very strongly that our efforts made enough legislators question them so they did not roll through without questions and opposition. We plan to continue educating Tennesseans and legislators about the realities of these bills. And we will be at the Capitol in 2014 when they come up again. We aren’t finished yet… Grassroots Report: How Tennessee Parents Stopped Vouchers, The Network for Public Education, April 25, 2013.
Before I got a chance to blog about the Tennessee parents, I came across this story about parents fighting high-stakes testing in Texas:
They were dismissed as moms, overprotective and easily manipulated moms.
But those women, determined to protect their children from state testing mandates that they say had gone too far, have overwhelmed the powerful business and political forces that made Texas the capital of high-stakes testing.
It started small, with just eight women from Austin and suburban Houston at the center. But the movement spread fast and wide, and now Texas is on the verge of a dramatic testing turnaround. ...
... “They did their homework, they understood how the system worked, and they clearly were underestimated by Bill Hammond,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who spoke in January 2012 at a meeting that helped bring the group together. ...
... Majcher and Schultz had also discovered that they were not alone. Pockets of parent resistance had popped up elsewhere in the state and some of them came to Austin in January 2012 for a committee hearing on testing. They all talked, shared some ideas and joined forces.
“You tend to think you’re just an island on an issue until you meet up with another island and before you know it, you’re a continent,” said Susan Kellner, a former school board president in Spring Branch near Houston who has become a leader of the parent group. ... Moms’ group shakes up status quo on Texas’ testing regimen,, April 27, 2013.
And there was this excellent column in the Detroit Free Press today:
There’s a fight brewing over the heart and soul of public education.
In one corner, we have Gov. Rick Snyder, who says he believes that the point of an education is to connect the student with a job. It’s not a crazy notion — it worked for Snyder, after all; the governor amassed a slew of degrees at an astonishingly young age, and rode his academic success to the top of three fields.
And in the other, we have the traditional education system, fighting to hold on to a place for the humanities, for art, music, literature and philosophy, subjects whose value isn’t always measurable in dollars or job titles. ...
... So these two viewpoints came to a head last week at the governor’s annual education summit.
Flanagan waded into the fray with remarks he says were meant to ease the tension between business community members and educators present at the summit. Education for education’s sake is silly, said Flanagan, according to other event attendees — an outrageous statement from a man charged with overseeing the state’s K-12 system. Flanagan contends that his remark was intended to address, and ease, the tension between Snyder and educators — the superintendent says it’s essential that education both prepare students for work and imbue the intangible advantage an education conveys.
That’s true. But here’s something else that’s true: The idea that the value of education can be measured in material success is kind of missing the point.  Nancy Kaffer: School reform dangerous if you don't understand value of education, Detroit Free Press, April 29, 2013.
The movement in Okemos hasn't been around that long, but it's growing quickly.  Many of us are still learning about the radical changes being pushed in Lansing, but our numbers have climbed over the last month and we are already connecting with folks from across the state.  If you want to connect with other groups directly, you can find them on Facebook:
Keep reading the blog.  Keep sending us the education stories that interest you.  Let us know if you want to do more.  Feel free to share the emails or blog.

People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society. - Vince Lombardi

Friday, April 26, 2013

Future of Education Forum

Our last few posts have, from our perspective, been pretty intense with news about "vouchers for vendors" being rolled into the budget and Gov. Snyder's secret "skunk works" project.  We would like to take a step back from the news with a few updates.  We'll return to detailed analysis and very current news next week.

Michigan State Board of Education Future of Education Forum
The State Board of Education has been holding forums around the state to discuss many of the subjects addressed in these emails.  The Okemos Parent Council Legislative Committee and the Michigan Sandbox Party are happy to welcome members of the State Board of Education to the mid-Michigan area for a community forum on education issues at the local and state level. Learn from expert panelists, engage in important dialogue and help bring awareness to the critical issues at stake.

Date: Thursday, May 16th
Time: 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm
Location: Chippewa Middle School, 4000 N. Okemos Rd., Okemos, 48864
  • John Austin, President Michigan State Board of Education (confirmed)
  • Lupe Ramos-Montigny, State Board of Education (confirmed)
  • Steve Norton, Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools (confirmed)
  • Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent Oakland ISD (confirmed)
  • Stanley Kogut, Superintendent Ingham ISD (confirmed)
Thanks to Okemos parent and Meridian Township Trustee Angie Wilson for her hard work in bringing this event together.

Next Week - Q and A with Meridian Twp. Trustee Ronald Styka
Meridian Township Trustee and former Okemos School Board member Ronald Styka has agreed to do a Q and A with Okemos Parents for Schools next week.  Trustee Styka brings a wealth of experience and understanding of school finance and management to these discussions and we are excited to bring you his perspective on issues like "vouchers for vendors" and what he thinks they mean for Okemos Public Schools.

What We Are Doing
Our first Action Item was a success.  We saw significant contact to lawmakers including from people who were not on our mailing list.  Our emailing and modest social media campaign generated hundreds of page views for our posts on "vouchers for vendors," and Gov. Snyder's secret "skunk works" project.  We continue to schedule times to meet with parent organizations within Okemos. 

Additionally, folks in Kentwood and Middleville have contacted us and plan to organize similar efforts in their areas. 

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Lao-tzu

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Education Budgets Moving - Vouchers and Disinvestment

The House and Senate voted on education budgets today.  Both versions fail to adequately fund K-12 and contain radical elements of the Oxford plan such as "vouchers for vendors."  While legislators from our area (such as Sam Singh, Andy Schor, and Gretchen Whitmer) voted against these budgets, they had enough support pass their respective houses.  The different bills must be reconciled, so there is still opportunity to influence the process.  Please share this post with friends and family around the state on Facebook and other social media and encourage them to reach out to their representatives.  We also anticipate coordinating another direct outreach.

Key points about on these budgets include (analysis from Michigan Parents for Schools):
  • Both versions divert $400 million from K-12 to fund higher education.  We support our wonderful public universities every bit as much as we support K-12, and believe they should also be adequately funded.  We reject the notion that the important institutions of K-12 education and higher education should be pitted against each other over this funding. 
  • Both versions decrease total funding to K-12.  They each engage in a strange kind of shell game which takes a bit from one area of the budget and moves it to another.  But in the end, the bottom line is less funding for public schools this year than last.
  • Both versions contain elements of the Oxford plan in a brazen push to voucherize our public schools. 
This last bit deserves more explanation.  In a previous post and in person at PTO meetings we have discussed the funding implications of the "vouchers for vendors" provision.  Okemos Parents for Schools, "Vouchers for vendors," what it is, and why you should speak out against it, April 14, 2013.  This is found in 21f of SB 0182 (this language was moved from SB 0222 into SB 0182, the measure passed by the Senate today).  Read SB 0182 here.  We were previously unable to explain exactly how "vouchers for vendors" will work since our representatives have pushed this radical change into the budget without debate.  We've parsed the language and can now provide some details.

Under the new "voucher for vendors" provision, any pupil in grades 5-12, with the consent of a parent or legal guardian, may force the district to enroll them in up to two online courses per semester and award credit. 

The district has no ability to ensure the quality of the course, supervise the progress of the student, control the cost of the course, or ensure the student is a good fit for online courses.  The sole requirement for eligibility is found in 21f(1) that the student is "in any of grades 5-12." (Districts may refuse to enroll a student if he has already gained credit from a course, a course does not generate credit, a course does not satisfy a remaining requirement, or prerequisites are not satisfied. 21f(5)(A-D))

Students will be able to choose from any course offered by their school, or courses in a statewide catalogue.  21f(3)  Additionally, every online course offered by every district or charter in the state will be required to be entered into the statewide catalogue.  21f(1)(A)  The combination of these measures is staggering.  Every school in the state will be forced into a completely unregulated free-for-all.  If a cash-strapped district, or for-profit charter, chooses to syphon funding from other districts by offering low quality courses in the statewide catalogue, they can attract students with lax requirements, low grading standards, or by any other means which might appeal to students.  There is no requirement that a district or for-profit charter offering an online course even enroll its own students.  Districts and for-profit charters can simply start up low-cost, low-quality online courses as cash cows.

If a student completes an online course, his district must award credit and identify the course on his transcript by the title on the course's syllabus.  21f(9)  So, while a district might selectively enroll students in rigorous honors courses, any student would be free to take an online course labeled as an "honors" offering regardless of the actual rigor of the work or grading.  There is nothing in the "vouchers for vendors" measure to stop districts or for-profit charters from giving courses titles such as "high honors" or "super elite" and requiring the simplest of work.

Quality was a main concern the first time "vouchers for vendors" was pitched to Michigan voters as "unbundling."  In 2012, this idea was a main focus of the "Oxford Report," produced by attorney Richard McLellan, which sought to radically change school finance in Michigan:
"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." Bridge Magazine, Bills would turn Michigan into a "Super Choice" state, November 27, 2012
Even as this measure was rushed onto the statewide stage with little time for debate, experienced educators immediately flagged concerns:
"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.'” Bridge Magazine, Bills would turn Michigan into a "Super Choice" state, November 27, 2012.
After the radical measures advanced by McLellan were rejected by Michigan voters, McLellan circulated a memo to Republican leadership which advised them, not to rethink the rejected policies, or to try and engage the public to garner support, but to simply introduce them bit-by-bit without substantive change:
"In this atmosphere, I would advise that changes in HB 5923 to address improving school performance and education options be undertaken on a piecemeal basis so that each concept can be individually addressed." Richard McLellan, Memo to Representative Lisa Lyons, Chair, House Education Committee, March 13, 2013.
Although none of the questions about unsupervised cyber schools funded through vouchers have been answered by the measure's proponents, more have surfaced.  One of the country's main providers of these courses, K12 Inc., has become embroiled in scandal.  K12 Inc. operates in Michigan and would be eligible to offer its courses to every student in the state under this measure.  A New York Times story about K12 Inc. showed:
  • "Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll."
  • "Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students."
  • "Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them."
  • "State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in." New York Times, Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools, December 12, 2011.
A Washington Post story on K12 Inc. explored how the company was rapidly growing its operation through massive political contributions:
  • "K12 has hired lobbyists from Boise to Boston and backed political candidates who support school choice in general and virtual education in particular. From 2004 to 2010, K12 gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics."
  • "[Massachusetts State Rep. Martha Walz] acknowledged that the language was imperfect and didn’t address issues of funding or oversight but said she couldn’t wait to craft a comprehensive plan.'You do what you need to do sometimes to get the ball rolling,' said Walz, who accepted at least $2,600 in campaign contributions from K12, its executives or its lobbyists since 2008, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
    That scenario is repeating nationwide as K12 and its allies seek to expand virtual education."
  •  “We are now that much closer to our manifest destiny of making a K12 Inc. education available to every child,” [Ronald J. Packard, chief executive and founder of K12] said in a call with Wall Street analysts this month." Washington Post, Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value, November 26, 2011.
In the wake of the New York Times and Washington Post stories, K12 Inc. shareholders sued the company. Shareholders allege security laws were violated when company executives failed to disclose:
"(1) according to various academic benchmarks, K12 students were chronically underperforming their peers at traditional schools; (2) K12 has aggressively recruited students to their schools, regardless of how well-suited they might be for the Company’s curriculum; (3) as a result of K12’s haphazard recruiting process, the Company experiences student retention problems resulting in high rates of withdrawal; (4) K12 schools often have far larger student-to-teacher ratios than the Company advertises; and (5) K12 teachers have been pressured to allow students to pass regardless of academic performance, in order to receive federal funds." Daily Kos, K12 Inc online charter school being investigated for potential securities fraud, January 12, 2012.
One first hand account from a cyber school teacher shows why K12 Inc is getting such bad results (this author worked in a cyber school which purchased content from a K12 Inc competitor, but speaks to systemic problems with cyber schools):
"... The students can look at a test as many times as they want without taking it. Some of the students print out the test, search through the textbook or wikipedia for the answers, and then take the test at a later time. That is the best case scenario. A lot of the students cut and paste the questions into websites like Yahoo Answers and other users will give them the answer. Some cut and paste the entire test. And some students cut and paste the answers into their tests without even reading either of them. ..." One Room Schoolhouse, Cyber schools are much worse than you think, March 17, 2013.
So, we're bringing all of this to Michigan despite the fact that our public schools are already offering students the chance to take online classes, but with the supervision and support of experienced teachers.  Oakland Schools Superintendent Vicki Markavitch explains:
"Parents and students in Michigan already have the option of taking online courses.  Thousands of students are taking thousands of online courses, because Michigan's school districts across the state are operating under a seat time waiver from the state superintendent that allows them to offer these course, pay for them, make sure they're of good quality." Okemos Parents for Schools, New budget's disinvestment in K-12 goes beyond vouchers, April 17, 2013.
This situation is not good, but there is still time to influence the process.  Please share this post widely and encourage friends and family to stand up for public education. 

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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New budget's disinvestment in K-12 goes beyond vouchers

"Vouchers for vendors" is in the budget, and that's bad.  Very bad.  Maybe not quite crossing the streams bad, but about as close as you can come to that in public school finance.  We discussed "vouchers for vendors" at length in our last post.  But there is plenty else to object to in the budget if you support public schools.

Probably the best breakdown of the budget comes from Oakland Schools Superintendent Vicki Markavitch.  Her 4 minute explanation is worth your time:

Here are the key points of Dr. Markavitch's explanation of how this budget falls short of even minimally supporting K-12 education:
  • $400 million are diverted from K-12 to finance universities.  (Okemos Parents for Schools support public universities and believe they should be robustly funded, but not at the expense of K-12 education).
  • $8 million are set aside for the EAA.  The 15 EAA schools get this money on top of their per pupil allowance, additional millions given to the EAA for startup, and additional millions from private donors.
  • Despite individual line items, total funding to K-12 is decreased.
  • "Vouchers for vendors" or "unbundling" is included. 
Dr. Markavitch says:
"Also, we can see the Governor put pieces of the Oxford Plan, that's the plan to rewrite how schools are funded in Michigan, into this budget. "Unbundling" school funding is a big piece.  And it appears in a small section of the budget that looks like it is simply giving parents and students the chance to take online course.  Well I have good news for the legislators and the Governor.  Parents and students in Michigan already have the option of taking online courses.  Thousands of students are taking thousands of online courses, because Michigan's school districts across the state are operating under a seat time waiver from the state superintendent that allows them to offer these course, pay for them, make sure they're of good quality, support the students through them.  So why do we need a section in the state budget for this kind of activity?  Well it's not for selecting online courses.  It's a backdoor to vouchers.  And these vouchers, are going to go to vendors."
Michigan Parents for Schools has broken down the respective budgets currently offered by Governor Snyder, the Senate, and the House.  None of them are good.  MPFS breaks down their differences.  MPFS also includes a handy email composer in case you're inclined to write to a lawmaker.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Vouchers for Vendors," what it is, and why you should speak out against it

One dynamic that makes the discussion about pending education legislation difficult to digest is that there are actually multiple issues such as (1) funding structures, (2) funding levels, (3) intervention in troubled schools, (4) high-stakes testing, and more. Most of the policies being advanced are bad, but they are bad for different reasons.  These posts will continue to provide the same type of information as before, but will generally be organized by these topics in future.
This post also marks the first post to be published contemporaneously with the corresponding email.  For the time being, the blog will simply archive these emails.  However, this will allow us to refer to information we previously circulated.  This post will use the blog to refer to an extensive list of coverage of cuts to Lansing schools.  We hope to eventually add even more resources to the blog. 
The main point of this post is to comprehensively make the case for why the funding structure philosophy of "Unbundling," "Dollars following children," "Any time, any place, any pace," "A la carte academics" or "Vouchers for vendors" would be a terrible policy choice; and to explain how this policy has been slipped into the budget the Legislature is currently considering.  We talked about "Vouchers for Vendors" in our last email, but because that has been our only email to address the topic of funding structure, we wanted to address this topic in a comprehensive way at lease one time before asking you to take action this week.  (There are whole separate set of concerns with the quality of education produced by this funding structure.  They will be addressed in a later email.) 
Funding Structures - Michigan School Funding Basics - What is "Proposal A?"
To understand how Michigan schools are funded today, it's helpful to understand how they were funded previously, and the dramatic changes made in 1993 and 1994.
Before 1993, Michigan schools were largely funded by local property taxes.  During this time, Michigan's property taxes were above the national average.  Also, there were wide discrepancies in funding between districts.  Wealthier areas tended to have better funded schools.  In 1993 the Engler administration pursued and achieved Public Act 145 of 1993 (145 PA 1993) which repealed property taxes as the primary funding source for K-12 education.  145 PA 1993 eliminated approximately $7 billion in school operating funds and did not provide any alternative funding source.
In 1994 voters were given two choices of how to fund schools, but both choices accomplished this through state taxes.  Voters were asked to increase the sales tax rate (Proposal A) or increase the income tax rate if Proposal A failed (Statutory Plan).  Voters chose Proposal A, but either way, there was no longer a choice to fund the operating budget of schools through local choices.  Every district in Michigan would now be dependent a yearly per pupil allowance (the foundation allowance) from the state, and would be prohibited from raising more money for operating expenses locally.  School Finance Reform in Michigan, Proposal A: Retrospective. This effectively capped what districts could spend on teacher salaries, crayons, toilet paper, and everything else considered an operating expense.
Funding Level - Funding Since Proposal A
Initially, the per pupil allowance from the state to districts, the foundation allowance, kept pace with inflation.  However, since 2002 Michigan has dramatically defunded K-12 education.
Although the per pupil allowance differs slightly among districts, they generally rise and fall together.  So, while an individual district's funding would likely differ from this graph, it would follow this trend.
Ann Arbor School Board of Education Trustee Christine Stead maintains an excellent blog.  She recently discussed painful cuts Ann Arbor Public Schools will be forced to make, and reflected on the decreases in revenue since Proposal A:
"While we can’t measure what funding pace we should be on, if we had kept pace with inflation since then, we would have $55M more in this year’s budget.  We wouldn’t be exploring cuts at all.  We would be investing in programs for our students; putting our foundation allowance closer to the average in Massachusetts (the top-performing state for student education), but still $2K under their average investment per student."  k12christinestead, Transitions, April 12, 2013.
Lansing public schools are facing drastic cuts for the next school year which have been widely documented in the popular media and in this forum.  Okemos Parents for Schools, Informational Update April 3, 2013.
Funding Structures - "Voucher for Vendors," Generally
A number of radical measures were pursued the 2012 lame duck session of Michigan's legislature.  This package of bills was met by united opposition from grass roots parents groups, teachers, administrators, education academia and more.  Bridge Magazine did a series of stories on the package of bills while they were being considered.  Bridge Magazine, Bills would turn Michigan into a "Super Choice" state, November 27, 2012.  Among the most widely opposed elements of the 2012 lame duck agenda was the "Vouchers for vendors" idea. 
This was discussed in our April 10 email.  Essentially, the idea is that a student can choose an online course, or courses, and his district will be mandated to pay for it. That will leave districts who have no option to raise money locally (because of Proposal A), and who have already been cut to the bone by a decade of disinvestment from the state (see the graphic above), forced to pay an unknown amount to cyber vendors.  Proponents of this approach argue that if the student is taking the course from another provider, the student is placing less demand on the district.  However, and this is the key to why the math won't work, the cost of the course will not be measured by a reduction of burden on the district.  This will allow for-profit cyber schools to syphon away funding from public schools without taking a proportionate amount of work or responsibility.
Keep in mind that public school districts receive the same per pupil allowance for every child, while different children cost very different amounts to educate. As we discussed before, "An elementary school student who learns quickly is relatively inexpensive to educate.  But a high school student taking advanced courses, or a special needs student who gets a great deal of individualized instruction costs much more.  For a comprehensive school district the per pupil average funding approach is fine since the district educates all the children within its borders." April 10 email.  So for-profit cyber vendors will be strongly incentivized to create offerings for the easiest, and cheapest to educate.  There is no compensation in this scheme for the many wonderful aspects of a comprehensive school district such as bussing, pools, guidance counselors, clubs, school newspapers, specialized instruction, and more.  Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools, explains this better than we can in a 10 minute podcast which is worth the time to watch.
Funding Structures - "Vouchers for Vendors," It's in the Budget
This idea didn't go away when every party with a stake in public education in Michigan rejected it last year.  In a memorandum last month, attorney Richard McLellan advised House Education Chair Lisa Lyons that rather than abandon these rejected policies, the separate measures "... be undertaken on a piecemeal basis so that each concept can be individually addressed." You can read the memorandum in it's entirety here
Rather than reopen this discussion and try to get buy in from the interested parties, "Vouchers for Vendors" has simply been slipped into the budget.  You can read it for yourself in SB 0222, section 21f.  This language would mandate that any Michigan student in grades 5-12 would be eligible to enroll in two online courses each semester and the district would pay for them out of per pupil allowance.  For the reasons explained above, this would be an uncontrolled syphoning away of public funds, from public education, to for-profit online vendors.  In discussions with parents and concerned citizens we have been asked all sorts of questions about limits, quality, pricing, etc.  We don't have answers to any of this because this idea has never been thoroughly thought through. Rather than get input from parents, or teachers, or education academia, or the State Board of Education, or local boards of education, the Oxford plan penned by attorney Richard McLellan is simply being fast-tracked into state law. 
We will ask you to speak out on this to your law makers this week.  If you have any questions about this, email and we'll do the best we can to answer them.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Informational Update email from April 10, 2013

What's Going On - "Unbundling" or "Vouchers to Vendors" snuck into the budget
The Legislature has revived one of the most radical and controversial measures of its failed agenda from 2012's lame duck session and slipped it into the budget without public discourse.  This measure would create a drastic funding problem for Okemos, Haslett, and other area schools.
During the lame duck session of 2012, the Legislature pursued a radical change to the way public schools are funded in Michigan.  The Legislature proposed "unbundling" school funding or creating "vouchers to vendors."  The idea was that a student in a public school could take an online class, and the school would have to pay for it out of it's per/pupil allowance from the state.  On the surface, this sounds fine.  But there are two dynamics of school funding which would make this devastating to public schools.
First, comprehensive public school districts are so much more than just the individual classes students take.  Comprehensive public school districts provide bussing, libraries, sports, clubs, and more.  For-profit online schools that syphon away public funds offer none of these things.  Michigan State Professor of K-12 Educational Administration David Arsen recently wrote a detailed "Open Letter" to Gov. Snyder explaining this.  In the letter, Professor Arsen examines with comprehensive detail why the math of this proposal won't work.  He also notes that Ann Arbor Greenhills, the private school Gov. Snyder's children attended, take the opposite approach:
"Greenhills does not accept credit for online classes, nor offer classes for credit in the summer. It takes a firm position against students taking courses at other institutions, including colleges or universities, unless they have already taken the school’s most advanced course in a subject. . . . The school has a thoughtful rationale for these decisions: it wants students to interact with one another and faculty to establish a durable and supportive community. I try to imagine how the families and educators at Greenhills would react if they were forced to operate under the rules embodied in the Oxford proposal . . ." An Open Letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, from Professor David Arsen.
Second, this piecemeal voucher approach ignores the fact that different children cost very different amounts to educate.  The state funds a flat fee for each student to the school districts.  An elementary school student who learns quickly is relatively inexpensive to educate.  But a high school student taking advanced courses, or a special needs student who gets a great deal of individualized instruction costs much more.  For a comprehensive school district the per pupil average funding approach is fine since the district educates all the children within its borders.  But allowing funding to be eroded in a piecemeal fashion leaves comprehensive school districts bearing a disproportionate burden while for-profit companies take public money for their profits.  This 10 minute podcast by Dr. Vickie L. Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools explains this in detail and is worth the time to watch. 
What We Are Doing
Okemos parent Angie Wilson recently spoke to the parent group and Bennett Woods Elementary and five parents signed up for Informational Updates and Action Items.  Welcome!  Okemos parent Brett DeGroff will speak with parents at Hiawatha and Cornell tomorrow. 
What's Next
There will be an Action Item on funding and vouchers soon.  We are coordinating with parents groups across the state on how best to target our efforts.  We know your time is valuable, so we don't take lightly making a request to call, write or email legislators. 

Informational Update email from April 3, 2013

What's Going On - Funding/Cuts
School districts across the state have been cutting programs and teachers as K-12 funding has been slashed. Now Lansing Public Schools have been forced into drastic cuts:
"Last week, the Lansing Board of Education approved a five-year teachers’ contract that will get the Lansing School District about $7 million closer to closing the next school year’s projected $9 million deficit. On the chopping block: 87 teaching positions, including 23 professionally certified — or “endorsed” — elementary school art, music and physical education teachers.  
These programs aren’t being eliminated, mind you — just the positions for teachers who hold specialty degrees in art, music and PE (the cut also includes 27 non-endorsed arts teachers and 37 retiring teachers whose positions won´t be refilled). According to the plan, those duties would fall to the general education elementary school teachers, some of whom have had special training in these arts. They will become responsible for teaching their students one-point perspective, beat counting and proper free throw form in addition to a regular classroom schedule." City Pulse, March 27, 2013.
The cuts were met with disapproval from the music community in Lansing.  The MSU College of Music issued a statement which said the cuts would negatively effect students.  The statement was joined by:
  • The Lansing Symphony Orchestra
  • The Wharton Center for the Performing Arts
  • The Greater Lansing Arts Council
  • Art Serve Michigan
  • The Michigan School Vocal Music Association
  • The Michigan Music Education Association.
Other coverage of the Lansing cuts:
What's Going On - Fact Checking Emergency Manager Roy Roberts
NBC hosted an education summit in Detroit. We linked to an interview with Gov. Snyder at the summit in a previous update. However there were multiple panels focused on Michigan schools.  One panel included Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools Roy Roberts.  Roberts made the following claim:
"But the key is, the academic side that you talked about, this past year on the state testing MEAP test, every grade in the Detroit Public Schools increased and improved and, in 14 out of 18, did better than the state average." Education Nation, Detroit Summit (Choose the "K-12: New Choices in Changing Times," and Roberts makes this claim at 20:39)
However, the claim was completely false.  Wayne State Professor Thomas Pedroni explains:
"It turns out, according to the Michigan Department of Education, that DPS did not outshine the state in 14 of 18 MEAP categories. The actual number was somewhat lower —- zero. DPS trailed the Michigan average in proficiency in all 18 categories. And not just by a bit—by more than 10 percentage points in the two science categories, and by 20 or more in the other 16. But it was a happy moment at the summit. No one—not one panelist, not one moderator, not one preselected member of the audience—raised an eyebrow over Roberts’ innovative facts.
Perhaps Roberts had merely stumbled over his own words. Maybe he really meant to say that DPS schools were gaining ground on the Michigan averages -— that yes, DPS was still behind, but was steadfastly narrowing the achievement gap in 14 of the 18 categories.
Unfortunately, that’s not the story the MEAP numbers tell either.
Instead they show that the Detroit Public Schools have fallen even further behind the state average since gaining an Emergency Manager in 2009. The picture the numbers paint is particularly bleak when the 15 schools handed to the EAA just before the fall MEAP administration are factored in. They show that Detroit’s third through eighth graders continue to lose ground in reading and math proficiency in most categories." Detroit Data and Democracy Project, March 28, 2013.
Of course, the Detroit Public Schools face immense challenges. But the claim that state-takeover itself is a solution is simply not true.
Other coverage of Roberts's claim:
What We Are Doing
Spring Break makes a quiet week for us.  But, we're lining up visits to parent meetings next week.
Spotlight on the EAA - Ann Arbor Trustee Visits an EAA School
Ann Arbor Public Schools Trustee Christine Stead recently visited two EAA schools in Detroit.  She also blogged about it in two posts.  The first, The EAA - Up Close and In Person, recounts the visit from a first-person perspective.  The second, What is Worrisome About the EAA? What Does it Mean for AAPS?, boils down exactly what the EAA means for Ann Arbor Public Schools.  Of course, Okemos Public Schools will be effected by the EAA in the same way Ann Arbor schools are. Trustee Stead had these four takeaways:
    1. The total cost of the EAA is unknown and there is no new revenue stream to fund the EAA. ...  What this means for the AAPS:  Funds will be taken from the AAPS to fully fund the EAA.  That means even more cuts to our budget.  The state should have created a total cost of program assessment and then asked voters to fund it – creating a new revenue source for the EAA, and not further stealing from the School Aid Fund.
    2. Poor track record for EAA’s leadership and the accountability disallows the local community to be engaged in the governance process.  ...  What this means for the AAPS: This bill was designed to work in concert with the ‘super voucher bill’ and the Oxford Foundation’s rewrite of the SAA – ultimately creating a path for massive education reform and, in Richard McClellan’s words, ‘to destroy public education as we know it in Michigan’.  I think that districts like AAPS are already testing and proving innovations, which frankly show in our student achievement results.  We continue to progress, innovate and lead.  I’d hate to see all of that go away so that some lawyers and the GOP can pat themselves on the back for massive reforms.  None of them are arguing for better or higher quality; just massive reforms.
    3. The EAA is very much a work in progress.  ...  What this means for the AAPS: if the EAA and all of the other bills pass, we will have for profit charter schools running massive experiments on our children – most on the fly, with inexperienced staff, as cheaply and fast as possible.  The commitment to quality and accountability are significantly lacking in this bill and its intended companions.  The impact of an expanded, and much more expensive, EAA; along with a completely fragmented (but innovative) education model, will destroy the small learning communities, robust programs and services and extra curricular activities that we currently offer in the AAPS.
    4. Outcomes are not defined. ...   What this means for the AAPS:  While there currently are no schools in our county that would qualify to be taken over by the EAA today, if we keep defunding these schools while we lay down the red carpet for our for profit charter school competitors, we will eventually have schools that could be EAA candidates.  This bill, and its intended companion bills, set horrible precedence for education reform in Michigan. K12christinestead, March 22, 2013.
Related - EAA Comparison by Lansing State Journal
The Lansing State Journal did a story on the EAA noting that if HB4639 passed as written, Lansing Eastern High School could be taken over as soon as next fall. The story makes some comparisons between public schools and EAA takeover schools. Lansing State Journal, March 25, 2013.
Related - Disciplinary Incidents Spike in EAA
The Detroit News reports the EAA has experienced a very high level of disciplinary incidents.  We relay this information not to throw stones, but to illustrate that state takeover itself is not a solution.  Even after the EAA takes over schools, it will have to overcome the poverty among students the public schools faced. Detroit News, April 3, 2013.
Other Resources
There is a Facebook group, Save Michigan's Public Schools, which is worth joining. A lot of good information is shared.
What More Can We Do?
As always, we want to get information to you, and facilitate you in speaking together to protect Okemos Public Schools and public schools across the state. Please email us with questions about what is going on. We will respond directly and also discuss the topic in an informational update. Please let us know if you want to be involved, and how you want to be involved. If you want to help but aren't sure what you can contribute, we have ideas.

Informational Update email from March 29, 2013

What's Going On
Gov. Snyder has proposed his budget, and now the Legislature will work from that recommendation to craft a budget. One item in the state's budget is the per pupil allowance.  Remember that because of Proposal A, a major change in the way Michigan schools are funded from 1994, public schools must cover all their operating costs from the per pupil allowance.  Gov. Snyder has said he is proposing an increase in the per pupil allowance, but that claim is disingenuous at best.  The "increase" he is proposing would have to go toward paying off retirement liabilities incurred by the state over decades past.  An update from Godfrey-Lee Public Schools explains in more detail (
What We Are Doing
Okemos parent Angie Wilson recently met with about parents at Chippewa Middle School.  Angie discussed school funding and ongoing legislation.  Three Chippewa parents signed up to receive informational updates.  Welcome!
Spotlight on the EAA - Unproven Experiment
Multiple pieces of legislation were advanced in December 2012 which would have been devastating to Michigan's public schools.  Because the House just passed HB4639, the EAA bill, that piece of the puzzle is worth taking a deeper look at. 
The EAA (Educational Achievement Authority) is not now written into state law, but is only an interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University which allows the state to operate 15 schools in Detroit.  As of now, the EAA doesn't have the power to take over more schools against the wishes of parents and local elected school boards.  HB 4639 would change that.
If HB 4639 becomes law, the EAA will expand to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, with a cap of 50 schools.  There would be no geographic limitation, so schools in Lansing would be fair game.  It's worth noting that the chair of the education committee, Lisa Lyons (R), added an amendment to the bill that essentially exempts schools in her area (
Of course, if the EAA were a proven tool which turned around failing schools its expansion would be a good thing.  But, it's not.  The EAA is an experiment.  It resembles the "takeover district" used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The EAA also relies heavily on a computer program called "Buzz," which was used in Kansas City. (The EAA's chancellor, John Covington, ran the Kansas City schools before coming to Michigan.  But, Kansas City discontinued use of Buzz as soon as Covington was gone.)  These other experiments have not been successes.
What little we know about the EAA is not good.  The EAA has been either secretive or disingenuous with its measures of student achievement.  Digging into test scores and what they mean is tedious stuff.  But Tom Pedroni, Assoc. Professor of Education, Wayne State Univ., did just that and testified to the House Education Committee before the House voted on the EAA bill.  His testimony is straightforward and worth watching.  But the two takeaways I got are these: (1) the baseline tests the EAA used were administered in such flawed conditions that they drastically underestimated the students starting point (so, a properly administered test the next day would have shown improvement), and (2) the EAA has large amounts of testing data which it refuses to make available to experts like Prof. Pedroni.  Watch his testimony here:
It's not surprising that the EAA is not producing results given its flawed methods. The Ann Arbor Chronicle explored EAA methods in depth last year ( The article is worth reading, but the author gives first person accounts of how the EAA's use of the "Buzz" program amounts to little more than plopping kids in front of a computer instead of personal teaching.  The article also reports 45-student classrooms in the EAA.  An EAA teacher also gave a first person account of the "Buzz" program. Brooke Harris described Buzz as a "one size fits all" purchased curriculum which didn't do much to teach kids.  The picture she paints is pretty much just plopping kids in front of a computer.  (
State Sen. Bert Johnson recently wrote an op-ed discussing his opposition to the EAA (
Although even as proposed the EAA can only take over "failing" schools, it would impact funding in districts neighboring the schools it takes over.  There are also serious transparency concerns and concerns about loss of control with the EAA.  These issues will be discussed in later updates.  We'll keep the information coming.  Here is one Ann Arbor teacher's take on how the pieces of these radical changes fit together (
Other Education Stories
NBC News' Education Nation held a series of discussions in Detroit.  One discussion was a one-on-one with Gov. Snyder.
Other Resources
There is a Facebook group, Save Michigan's Public Schools (, which is worth joining.  Ann Arbor parent Steve Norton moderates the group and he and other parents post.
What More Can We Do?
As always, we want to get information to you, and facilitate you in speaking together to protect Okemos Public Schools and public schools across the state. Please email us with questions about what is going on. We will respond directly and also discuss the topic in an informational update. Please let us know if you want to be involved, and how you want to be involved. If you want to help but aren't sure what you can contribute, we have ideas.

Informational Update email from March 21, 2013

What's Going On
HB4639, the EAA bill, passed the Michigan House of Representatives last night by a vote of 57-53.  The EAA (Educational Achievement Authority) is not now written into state law, but is only an interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University which allows the state to operate 15 schools in Detroit.  Under HB4639, the EAA would expand to 50 schools, and the EAA would be able to take over any school in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, regardless of geographic location. The bill was passed along a party line vote, with three Republicans voting against the bill (Peter Pettalia, Ben Glardon, and Jon Bumstead).
Last minute amendments softened the impact of the bill.  Republican Ken Goike's amendment to give schools the chance to have their intermediate school districts intervene in place of the EAA was adopted.  Also, Republican Joel Johnson's amendment to allow public school employees in schools taken over by the EAA to continue to be members of the Michigan Public Schools Employees Retirement System was adopted. 
At the same time the House was passing HB4639 parents and educators from Stockbridge, Waverly, Dewitt, Grand Ledge, Bath, Lansing, Ingham ISD, Charlotte, Okemos, Maple Valley, Owosso, and more were meeting to discuss grassroots organizing to support public schools.  State Senator Rick Jones was in attendance and spoke briefly at the conclusion of the presentation.  He expressed support for the EAA as it exists today, but said that he does not support expansion of the EAA statewide.  He opined that it would not pass the Senate. 
What We Are Doing
Okemos parent Brett DeGroff met with about a dozen parents at Central Montessori this week.  A brief presentation included school funding basics, an overview of the EAA, and a discussion of the impact of "unbundling" school funding.  Nine Central parents signed up to receive informational updates.  Welcome!
Okemos parent Angela Wilson is organizing a Community Forum with State School Board President John Austin. This will be an opportunity to express your thoughts and ask questions of the panelists about the future of public education in Michigan. Stay tuned for more information.
What Other Parents Are Doing
East Grand Rapids parent advocate Elizabeth Welch Lykins wrote an op-ed which appeared in the Grand Rapids Press and on  In the piece, Lykins raises questions about accountability and transparency with the EAA. 
Read the piece here:
What More Can We Do?
As always, we want to get information to you, and facilitate you in speaking together to protect Okemos Public Schools and public schools across the state.  Please email us with questions about what is going on.  We will respond directly and also discuss the topic in an informational update.  Please let us know if you want to be involved, and how you want to be involved.  If you want to help but aren't sure what you can contribute, we have ideas. 
Other Education Stories
While there is no data to support the EAA model, there is data about the effect of The Kalamazoo Promise on Kalamazoo Public Schools.  "Starting with the Class of 2006, 91 percent of Promise-eligible students -- including those from alternative education programs -- have enrolled in at least one semester of college, an astonishing statistic in a high-poverty, majority-minority school district."
Rep. Lisa Lyons, who gave us the EAA bill, recently introduced a bill which would exempt real estate property from the State Education Property Tax. That would remove something like $1.8 BILLION from the School Aid Fund. (It would mean that no one, homeowner or business, would pay the 6 mill SET on their real property.)
While traditional public schools are being criticized, and legislators are pushing for expansion of the EAA experiment, a model of investment in public school is showing proven results in Detroit in a short timeframe.