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  In 1993 the Engler administration pursued and achieved Public Act 145 of 1993 (145 PA 1993) which repealed property taxes as the primary funding source for K-12 education.  145 PA 1993 eliminated approximately $7 billion in school operating funds and did not provide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.

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