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. 

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