Monday, December 22, 2014

Lame Duck wrap up

All in all, the lame duck session couldn't have been expected to go much better for K-12 education.  Road funding, which was threatening to suck catastrophic amounts of money from K-12 education ended up with a compromise which may result in significant additional funding.  Also, a slew of harmful measures did not pass.

The biggest issue in the lame duck was how funding for roads might effect K-12 education.  A plan that passed the house would have moved funding from K-12 to road funding.  Okemos Parents for Schools, December 5, 2014. By the accounting of, the move would have cost Okemos Public Schools almost $1.9 million per year.  Okemos Parents for Schools, December 10, 2014

The politics of the situation put Republicans in control of the Michigan House of Representatives, the Michigan Senate, as well as the Governor's office.  The far right of the Republican party was unwilling to accept any additional taxes to pay for roads, and moderate Republicans were unwilling to take all the road funding money from schools and municipalities.  This meant the legislative minority, Democrats, were needed to pass any road funding bill.  The compromise that emerged centers around a May election where voters will be asked to approve a one percent increase in the sales tax.  If it passes, the entire compromise will be enacted:
In addition to increasing the sales tax from 6% to 7%, the plan would remove the sales tax from motor fuel and effectively raise the overall tax on gas by 3 cents. . . .  Snyder and legislative leaders say the deal will not only improve road funding but increase funding for Michigan schools by $300 million--an amount Snyder says will work out to about $200 per student--and create an additional $100 million in funding for public transportation. The plan will also reportedly ensure school aid fund revenue goes to K-12 districts or community colleges and not universities. [ClickOnDetroit, December 18, 2014.]
Democrats also insisted on restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit for working poor people to the level it was at before cutting by the Snyder administration.  All in all, an issue which presented a significant risk to K-12 education was turned into a positive situation.  Okemos Parents for Schools supports this measure and will ask voters to approve the measure in May.  Another little reported aspect of the compromise is that it authorized a study to determine the cost of educating a child in Michigan:
Finally, the compromise included one more surprise: a repurposed bill which will authorize a study to determine the true cost of educating a child in Michigan. This is a measure which Michigan parents have advocated for years, and was proposed by a bill introduced earlier this year. So far, our state has been talking about school funding in a vacuum, and this study would give us a chance to systematically measure what different school services cost. That would help us hammer out a sensible system for funding K-12 education that was geared at giving schools the resources they need. [Michigan Parents for Schools, December 22, 2014.]
A slew of other measures which threatened schools did not come to a vote in the lame duck session. "these measures will have to be reintroduced in the next session to move forward. Teacher and administrator evaluation, A-F school rating, 3rd grade flunking, EAA expansion, and the deficit "early warning" package all failed to become law."   Michigan Parents for Schools, December 22, 2014.

These are significant victories which would not have happened if not for the efforts of those of you who wrote and called legislators.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

House roads bill would cost OPS amost $1.9 million per year

One of the issues with the most traction in this year's lame duck session of the Michigan legislature is funding road repair.  That repair could come at a high price to schools.

As we have previously reported, the House plan to fund road repair would shift the way gas is taxed in Michigan so that tax revenue would go into the general fund instead of the School Aid Fund.  Okemos Parents for Schools, December 5, 2014.  In short, the House plans is to pay for roads by cutting schools. 

MLive has compiled a database which projects how much the House plan would cost each school per year.  The price tag for Okemos? $1,898,575.00 per year.  Check the MLive date base here: MLive, December 10, 2014.

Here are some price tags for neighboring communities as calculated by MLive:
  • Haslett - $1,298,175.00 per year
  • East Lansing - $1,645,875.00 per year
  • Lansing - $ 5,669,600.00 per year
  • Holt - $ 2,747,400.00 per year
  • Grand Ledge $ 2,400,650.00 per year
  • Williamston $854,525.00 per year
  • Mason $1,471,075.00 per year

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lame duck: funding roads by cutting schools

Two years ago a slew of radical education bills reared their heads in the lame duck legislative session--and it's happening again.

The election is over and there are many Michigan Representatives and Senators who won't be back on January 1st either because they are term limited or because they lost their election. Nonetheless, they still hold office until then and now is a time when they can push forward with unpopular measures without fear of reprisal from voters. There are several bad ideas making their way through the Legislature, one is to fund road repair by taking the money from public schools.

Fixing the roads has been a big focus in Lansing for more than a year. But, while all lawmakers say they are for improving roads, they disagree on how to pay for it. There are competing proposals in the Legislature right now. The measure which has passed the Senate would raise money by raising the gas tax:
The plan would convert the state's 19-cent per gallon gas tax to a wholesale version and gradually increase rates over four years. At the current wholesale price, gas taxes could top 40 cents by 2018. [, November 13, 2014.]
This plan is backed by Governor Snyder, and passed with Democratic as well as Republican votes in the Senate.  Okemos Parents for Schools takes no position on this measure as it has nothing to do with schools. The version passed by the House is another matter.

The version which recently passed in the House would not actually generate any additional revenue for the state, but would shift money which would otherwise go to schools and municipalities to roads:
The proposal put forth by Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, would phase out sales tax collections on fuel purchases between 2016 and 2021 but increase fuel taxes by a corresponding amount.
Fuel taxes are one of the state’s primary funding sources for roads. Most sales tax revenue, meanwhile, is constitutionally earmarked for the School Aid Fund and municipal revenue sharing programs.
"Simply put, this plan dedicates the taxes drivers pay at the pump to fixing their roads," Bolger, R-Marshall, said in a statement. 
There’s another complicating factor, however: Any new money generated for roads under the plan is not really new money. It’s funding that would have otherwise been directed toward schools and cities.
“If we take more money from our schools and our cities to solve the road funding problem, we haven’t really done anything,” said Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor. “We’ve played a shell game.” [, December 5, 2014.]
This same idea was floated last year, and we told you about it then, Okemos Parents for Schools, May 3, 2013, and estimated it could result in cuts to schools in the neighborhood of $500 per student.  Michigan Parents for Schools is once again estimating the cost to schools could be in the neighborhood of $500 per student.  Michigan Parents for Schools, December 4, 2014.

Okemos Parents for Schools strongly opposes this measure.  While fixing roads is certainly a worthy pursuit, there is no need to do it by cutting funding to schools.  If you would like to contact your elected officials you can easily do so with a helpful tool generated by Michigan Parents for Schools:

Click here to contact lawmakers.  Fund roads by cutting schools is Bad Idea #1.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Meridian Township putting schoolchildren ahead of profits

Meridian Township has recently taken the very positive step of passing a resolution putting schoolchildren ahead of corporate profits. 

Meridian Township Clerk Brett
Dreyfus introduced the Children
ahead of Profits resolution
We have written extensively on this blog about charter schools and syphoning of public education money away from children and toward for-profit corporations.  This phenomenon also happens through the ratcheting up of the ante in high-stakes testing, and moving of our public schools into the online space.  This local movement and others like it throughout the state are evidence that Michigan citizens are rejecting these policies.  Nonetheless, our state Legislature has continued down the privatization path. 

On October 7, 2014, Meridian Township Clerk Brett Dreyfus introduced a resolution formally rejecting these failed policies at the Meridian Township Board meeting.  The resolution reads as follows:
WHEREAS, the purpose of public education is to guarantee that all students—in both traditional schools and charter schools—receive a high quality education so that each and every child has the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life; and
WHEREAS, tax dollars earmarked for education should be spent fairly and efficiently, and taxpayers are entitled to know how every dollar is spent; and
WHEREAS, Michigan has some of the weakest charter oversight laws in the nation, making it too easy for operators to divert public moneys into private, out-of-state pockets.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Governor and Legislature should to develop and enact an equitable, transparent and accountable system for funding public schools—both traditional schools and charter schools—that enables every school to provide a quality education to each and every child in our state.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Governor and Legislature should adopt meaningful reforms that address issues highlighted in the Detroit Free Press series on charter schools and their for-profit management companies, including reforms that hold those management companies to the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools and ensures dollars are invested in classrooms, not padding corporate profits.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that all schools must be run with the primary goal of serving children, not making a profit off of them; there should be a moratorium on opening any more for-profit charters until state laws are changed so that the corporations can be held accountable, and a fair education funding formula establish that guarantees equal opportunity to a high quality education for all students.
The resolution passed unanimously at the board's November 6, 2014 meeting.  Meridian Township's board has several members who are strong public school advocates.
The Meridian Township Board unanimously passed the
Children ahead of Profits resolution.

Because of the way public schools are funded in Michigan, See What is "Proposal A," and how does it effect my school?, Okemos Parents for Schools, June 10, 2013, our Township Board has nothing to do with how our schools are operated or funded.  In a sense, the resolution is symbolic.  But, in another sense the resolution is another example of communities standing up and speaking out for public schools.  While examples like this may not effect much change in isolation, in aggregate they create a political environment where policy makers must address citizen concerns.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Promise of Music Education

By Mitchell Robinson

Editor's Note: This is a transcript of a talk given by Mr. Robinson at the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association Conference.

Mitchell Robinson
My job allows me to travel quite a bit, so I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the finest music programs and teachers across the country—and I believe that Michigan has some of the best school music programs in the opportunity to see some of the finest music programs and teachers across the country—and I believe that Michigan has some of the best school music programs in the nation. While there are excellent music programs all around the country, there are a few things that make Michigan’s music programs so strong:

• The quality of music teachers in our state is outstanding. They are talented, smart and well informed.

• Michigan's teachers also tend to be well-connected to their professional organizations, and seek out high quality professional development. One of the things we know through research is that teachers who attend professional development events tend to remain active members of the profession, while those who don’t often wind up leaving the classroom. Events like the Michigan Music Conference, which brings together elementary, string, band and chorus teachers to share and learn from one another, help to create a broad and diverse community of music educators who respect what each other have to offer our profession. We are stronger when we are all together, and speaking with one voice as a profession.

• Music programs in MI are grounded in solid philosophical and theoretical foundations—they are based on comprehensive, sequential general music programs in the elementary schools, and the band, orchestra and chorus programs at the secondary level are also very strong. Kids coming out of these programs come to college well-prepared for the rigors of further music study, or ready to continue their musical careers in community bands and orchestras, church choirs, and other community-based groups.

So, we are fortunate to be in a state with excellent music and arts programs—but sadly this is not the case in every school in MI. You may have heard about the decision in Lansing to eliminate all elementary music, art and PE. This creates an enormous equity issue for children and families in our region—where those who live in Okemos, or Brighton, or Greenville enjoy rich, meaningful offerings in the arts, while their peers in Lansing or Flint or Detroit have little to no access to these opportunities.

A similar situation exists nationally, as we hear a lot about how America’s schools are “failing”, and falling behind when compared to schools in places like Finland or Taiwan. Here is what we don’t hear very often—when those same test scores are controlled for SES (socio-economic status), US students and schools from places with comparable poverty levels score at the very top of the ratings, just as good or better than any schools in the world.

The truth is that much of the “doom & gloom” we read in the news about education in our state and our nation is a manufactured crisis. Its important to make sure that we all keep in mind how fortunate we are to have fine schools and music programs in MI, and to advocate for those programs for what they offer our children and our communities--because I believe that given the current education reform climate, what we have to offer as music teachers may be more valuable and needed than ever before.

Pitfalls in American Education

Recently, I was at a conference in North Carolina where the guest speaker identified some possible pitfalls in today’s educational scene. I want you to think with me about these ideas for a few minutes, especially as they relate to education here in Michigan:

1. The 1st point centered on the notion that teacher quality is best measured by improvements in student test scores.

2. The 2nd point was the notion that “pedagogical development knowledge”, or PDK, is the same as “subject matter knowledge,” or SMK, or that all it takes to teach math, is knowing some math.

3. The 3rd point focused on the notion of “teachers as saviors,” and that the schools can solve the nation’s problems, and even those of the world. Implicit in this assumption is that other factors, such as adequate resources for the schools, money for facilities, equipment and teacher salaries, etc., are somehow less important.

4. Finally, the speaker challenged the notion that the purpose of the schools is to produce the nation’s workforce, and that the nation’s economy depends on the educational system—and that other purposes of education are less important.

How do these issues impact our lives as teachers, parents and community members?

Related to the first 2 points, on teacher quality and what it takes to be a teacher—I have been working since the mid-1990s in the preparation of new teachers and teacher educators. In the last couple of years, many of the changes we have seen in education policy have made these tasks much more difficult than ever before.

While there is no doubt that a good teacher in the classroom or on the podium is the single most important in-school element in the “educational equation”, the idea that teacher quality has a causal relationship to students’ test scores is simplistic and naïve. The fact is that less than 10% of the differences in student achievement are attributable to in-school factors—and the rest is due to things like parental support, socio-economic status and other out-of-school factors--which account for as much as 93% of the differences in student achievement. We need to remember that schools should be about much more than just academic achievement—as measured solely by tests—and that social, physical, artistic, emotional and aesthetic development are equally important outcomes to a sound educational program.

We are seeing similar problems with teacher evaluation in our state. Teachers are now being evaluated on a 4-point scale, with nearly half of that rating being based on student scores on standardized tests. Especially troubling for music teachers is that the part of their rating is often based on test scores in subjects that they don’t teach, like math or reading, and on test scores for children that are not even in their classes. That doesn’t seem right, or fair.

We often hear the saying, “We test what we value.” I would respectfully suggest that exactly the opposite is true. In fact, the things that we value and care about the most are those things that are precisely the most resistant to being measured. If you'd like to test this out for yourselves, just try going home tonight and assigning your wife, husband, spouse or partner with a numeric grade on their performance at home this week, or give your children ratings that compare one against the other. Please let me know how that works out for you ...

Regarding “teachers as saviors”…I believe that sometimes we are our own worst enemies as music teachers. When teachers of other subjects are faced with cuts to their programs they respond by scaling back their course offerings and using those depleted resources in the places that best influence student learning in their discipline. But when music programs are cut, how do we respond? We schedule extra or longer rehearsals, we have extra lessons and coaching sessions, and spend more of our own time and money making up the differences. The result is often that our principals don't notice any difference in the quality of our programs or performances, and we continue to be expected to “do more with less.” Its a particular phenomenon that seems to effect music educators disproportionately more than teachers of other subject areas—to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we consciously “do less,” or “teach worse.” But I would suggest that we think hard about the messages we send to our administrators and the parents of our students when our programs are targeted for reductions in staff or resources. We need to be realistic and honest about the impacts of these cuts on our students’ learning—and on our lives as teachers, parents and human beings.

The final issue, about the purpose of education being to produce students who are “career and college ready,” is another "talking point" that I believe we need to push back against. This stance represents a subtle transformation of the true purpose of education, from one that is about the development of meaningful relationships between teachers and learners—and among learners—to one that is simply a transfer of information from teacher to learner; a sort of educational “banking transaction” if you will.

Again, to be clear, I am not against the development of students who are capable of moving onto college or the workforce—but that is not the purpose of education, and never has been. That’s a by-product of schooling, not a purpose. Just as the purpose of teaching music is not to get a good rating at festival, or to win a blue ribbon at solo and ensemble contest, but rather to help our students learn the musical skills and knowledge that will help them to become lifelong music makers and supporters of the arts.

The Promise of Music Education for the “Accountability Era”

So why, after all of this gloomy discussion, am I optimistic, and why do I think that music in schools is more important now than its ever been? Because never before in my teaching career can I think of a time when what we had to offer as music teachers was more desperately needed, by our students, our schools and our society. I believe that music and the arts may be a possible solution to this dilemma. As one of my education heroes, the late Elliott Eisner, said:

“In spelling and in arithmetic there are correct answers, answers whose correctness can be proven. In the arts judgments are made in the absence of rule. The temperature of a color might be a tad too warm, the edge of a shape might be a bit too sharp, the percussion might need to be a little more dynamic. What the arts teach is that attention to such matters matter. The arts teach students to act and to judge in the absence of rule, to rely on feel, to pay attention to nuance, to act and appraise the consequences of one’s choices and to revise and then to make other choices.”

Music and the other arts show students how to appreciate beauty; to make critical judgments that require deep and thoughtful listening and consideration; to be aware of their feelings and emotions in ways that no other subject demands; to understand that vulnerability is not a weakness, and that improvement is more important than perfection.

As the father of two school age boys, I see first hand the impact of a fine school music program on my kids. Music has helped them to think of problems in more creative, open-ended ways. They understand that there is often more than one “right” way to answer a question—especially when the question is a difficult one. They are comfortable with what psychologists call “divergent” thinking—the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem. Kids who study music know how to work together collaboratively in groups, to value the efforts of all team members, and that every person has the ability to make a worthwhile contribution to the group’s work.

I am optimistic because I know that music, when taught well, provides the “antidote” to today’s “teach to the test”, assessment-driven culture. Because, when taught well, music study offers the very things that employers say they are looking for in the workforce, and for what school leaders emphasize in mission and vision statements: critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving skills and creativity.

The Right Questions

I recently wrote an article for an education blog that received a surprising, yet encouraging, amount of attention. The article was about knowing the right questions to ask when considering the issues facing our schools. Here are a few of these questions ...

• What can we do to reduce the staggering levels of child poverty, not just in our cities but across demographics? Nearly a third of American children are now living in poverty, and this has a devastating impact on the ability of these children to come to school ready to learn.

• Why have we become obsessed with measuring things that don't mean what we think they mean, and using those measurements to punish children, teachers, schools and communities? There is nothing wrong, per se, with tests—except when they are the sole tools used to determine judgments about schools or teachers.

• Why do we think that sitting young children in front of computer screens is an adequate substitution for a real education? Technology can be a wonderful way to enrich student learning, but can not replace excellent teachers, or the social and emotional benefits of schooling.

• Why do we endorse a curricular model that privileges science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) when a comprehensive education has always included the humanities, arts and physical education (STEAM)? Again, there is nothing wrong with math or science—but education is about helping kids develop in well-rounded ways, not along narrow, one size fits all pathways.

• When did the notion of learning morph from the building and nurturing of personal relationships between teachers and learners into a mere information transaction, a simple matter of deposits and withdrawals? Learning is about a lot more than moving bits and pieces of data around—its discovering things about ourselves in varying conditions and circumstances, and developing personal relationships with colleagues and mentors.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from my hero, Dr. Eisner: “Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

This, to me, is the great power and promise of music in our schools—because, when taught well, music can provide the means for our students to figure out what to do, when they don’t know what to do. And that should be what we want for all of our students.

Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University. Prior to his current position, Dr. Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Robinson recently concluded a term as Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal, and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Arts Education Policy Review, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, and Research Issues in Music Education. His research is focused on education policy and the mentoring and induction of new music teachers.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Q and A: State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich

We are very pleased to bring you a Q and A with State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich.  Vice President Ulbrich discusses, among other things, a proposed constitutional amendment to change how the SBE is elected.  We posted on this yesterday. Okemos Parents for Schools, June 2, 2014.
SBE Vice President Casandra Ulbrich

Casandra was elected in 2006 to an eight-year term on the Michigan State Board of Education. She currently chairs the board’s Legislative Committee.  Casandra spent the majority of her career in higher education administration. She currently serves as the Vice President for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. Before joining Macomb Community College in 2011, Casandra was employed at Wayne State University for over ten years, serving in various administrative positions, including Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations. Casandra has been recognized as one of Michigan’s 40 under 40 by Crain’s Detroit Business and received the Service to Schools Award by the Macomb ISD. Casandra is the first in her family to earn a college degree, and holds a Ph.D. in Communication from Wayne State University. She serves on several boards and is an active volunteer K-9 handler with Search and Rescue of Michigan. Casandra answered our questions over email.

Q: What do you think of the proposal to amend Michigan’s constitution so that the State Board of Education is elected from single representative districts instead of every member standing for statewide election?

A: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” – Michigan Constitution

The framers of the State Constitution, along with the majority of voters in the state of Michigan, clearly envisioned public education as a necessary function of government. As such, they outlined, in the Constitution, a State Board of Education (SBE) that was stable, removed from the political whims of the day, and consistent in its mission and direction.

They did this by requiring that the board consist of eight members serving eight-year terms, with two members elected statewide every two years. Members are nominated by political party, and run for election on the November ballot. By running statewide, the members must focus on what’s in the best interest of all of Michigan’s children, not just those that are in a particular region.

House Joint Resolution GG would amend the Constitution to require that the SBE members are elected by district, as opposed to statewide. This would certainly alter the overall focus of the board, and may lead to board members who are beholden to their region of the state at the expense of others.

In addition, it’s unclear if every board member will be elected at the same time, or by staggered years. If elected at the same time, this could lead to major swings in education policy from one board to the next, creating an unstable environment for education policy.

Q: The State Board of Education has Democrats and Republicans. How would you say SBE members work with members of the other political party as compared to in Michigan’s legislature?

A: Unlike the State Legislature, the State Board of Education functions under a shared goal: ensuring a quality education for all of Michigan’s children. Therefore, while elected on a partisan ballot, the SBE is generally able to effectively work together and compromise on policy. Purely partisan votes are much more rare with the SBE than they are with the Legislature. In fact, the vast majority of votes in the SBE are bi-partisan.

Q: Why do you think there is a different dynamic on the SBE than in the Legislature?

A: There are a number of foundational elements that allow for this, including:
  • Longer terms – by serving an eight year term, the SBE has the ability to be thoughtful in policy decisions.         
  • Shared goals – each year, members of the State Board sit down with the Department of Education and develop a set of agreed-upon goals and directives for the year.        
  • Stability – every two years, only two members are up for election. Therefore, the SBE is not subject to the kind of major swings in membership that the Legislature endures. ·
  • Statewide election – The State Board is not subject to “gerrymandering.”
Q: What do you think is the motivation to change the way SBE members are elected?

A: My understanding is a desire to see more board members from the Northern part of the state, specifically the Upper Peninsula. However, the current system does not preclude anyone from this region from running for the State Board of Education.

Q: Do you see this as connected to the recent proposal to move supervision of standardized testing in Michigan from the Department of Education to the Treasury?

A: I am not aware of a connection. The State Board of Education has, unanimously, opposed moving assessments from the Dept. of Education to the Dept. of Treasury. Every member of the SBE signed onto the following bi-partisan statement:

The State Board of Education opposes HB 5581 and SB 945.

As stated in Michigan's Constitution, "Leadership and general supervision over all public education, including adult education and instructional programs in state institutions, except as to institutions of higher education granting baccalaureate degrees, is vested in a state board of education. It shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education, and shall advise the legislature as to the financial requirements in connection therewith."

Board members believe that quality career- and college-ready standards, rigorous student assessment, and appropriate school accountability must be thoughtfully integrated and coordinated for successful public education.

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.

Q: If you could make one or two big changes to education policy in Michigan, what would they be?

A: Over 20 years ago, Michigan voters approved a funding model, Proposal A, which essentially transferred the majority of financial responsibility of our schools to the state, creating a system whereby funding “follows the student.” At the same time, Michigan began experimenting with “school choice,” namely in the form of charter schools, creating one of the least –restrictive environments for Charter Schools in the county. This has led to Michigan outpacing the rest of the country in the number of for-profit run charter schools.

We now know that this funding model, and this structure, are completely incongruent, and have led to record numbers of school districts in financial distress. Adding to that, in the last ten years, Michigan has seen a decline in enrollment of over 135,000 students. At the same time, we have allowed a net gain of approx. 160 new charter schools to open. Next year, we will have about 20 additional charters open, despite another year of declining enrollment. This is a terribly inefficient way to run a school system.

The State of Michigan needs to create a strategy for its school system. We can no longer afford to allow unfettered school growth at the expense of our local schools. At the same time, we need to update our funding model to ensure that we are adequately funding our schools and expecting a high return on our dollar.

Q: A lot of the education policy coming out of our legislature these days based on the premise that Michigan schools are failing, so some kind of big changes are needed. Do you agree with that premise?

A: Public Education needs to be responsive to the ever changing environment. Therefore, there will always be room for improvement. However, as a member of the State Board of Education, I am disappointed in the fact that I often find myself defending the very idea of public education. There are clearly elements within our society who believe that public education, itself, is a failed experiment and should be destroyed. They have redefined the use of tools, such as student assessments, to label students, teachers, schools and districts as “failures.”

These labels then become an opportunity to “reform education.” Each year in Michigan, new “reforms” are introduced and implemented with record speed. However, our results are not improving. In fact, some argue that they are getting worse. Recent reports by Education Trust and the Annie E Casey Foundation have raised alarming results. Perhaps it is time to stop “reforming” and start allowing our educators to get back to teaching.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Constitutional amendment could result in gerrymandered Board of Ed

Last week a measure was introduced in the Michigan Legislature which could send the well-functioning State Board of Education (SBE) into gerrymandered dysfunction. 

The Michigan Constitution currently mandates that members of the SBE stand for statewide election and serve eight-year terms.  However, Joint House Resolution GG, introduced last week, could send a constitutional amendment to the ballot which would instead have SBE members elected from single member districts.

Currently the SBE has a mix of Democrats and Republicans, but generally comes together and agrees on matters both routine and controversial.  The dynamic is different on the SBE than in many other institutions in Lansing.  This no accident.

Both houses of Michigan's Legislature are composed of members representing a single district, and every district having one representative.  The district lines are drawn by whatever party holds a majority every ten years when it's time to redraw the lines.  Democrats and Republicans alike have traditionally used this as an opportunity to draw districts which favor their party, even if the districts split communities.  This is called gerrymandering.

When districts are gerrymandered, most districts will be "safe" for one party or the other and the result of the general election is a forgone conclusion.  The real contest is in the primary of the party which holds the advantage in the district.  To win the primary, candidates tend toward the ideological fringes.  This results in representatives with positions much more extreme than the general electorate of their district.  Additionally, each representative is insulated from criticism from outside his district, as the majority of Michigan citizens cannot vote in his election. This results in a very polarized governing body. 

As currently comprised, the SBE is designed to avoid that.  All eight members stand for statewide election, so each member is accountable to every voter in the state, and the incentive in a primary is to produce a moderate candidate who can win in a competitive general election.  Additionally, only two members stand for election at a time, so the SBE has a built in level of consistency with little turnover.

Joint House Resolution GG would change all of that, subjecting the SBE to gerrymandering and lowering it into the depths of Lansing's political fray. 

The joint resolution amendment process is governed by Article XII, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution.  The measure will need to pass both houses of the Legislature by a 2/3 majority, and then it will go to the ballot.  Joint House Resolution GG was introduced last week and referred to committee. 

Tomorrow we will publish a Q and A with SBE Vice President Casandra E. Ulbrich concerning Joint House Resolution GG.

Moving testing from Department of Education to Treasury could jeopardize federal funding

We previously posted about a plan circulating in the Legislature to move oversight of student testing form the Department of Education to the Treasury.  Okemos Parents for Schools, May 27, 2014. We noted lawmakers acknowledged the proposal was political payback.  Now a nonprofit citizens group has came out against the proposal.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan cites the state's experience in 2003 with Treasury oversight of the MEAP as an example of the problems that come with taking control of testing away from the Michigan Department of Education.
"While this proposed solution may serve as an expeditious policy response and meet other priorities, it most likely would come at a cost of less efficiency and accountability in carrying out state education functions," CRC director of state affairs Craig Thiel wrote on the group's website. [, May 24, 2014.]
In 2003 the CRC recommended returning control of the MEAP to the Department of Education from the Treasury after Governor Engler moved oversight of the test and the Treasury's tenure with the test was marked with delay after delay in scoring and reporting. 

Additionally, the CRC notes that Michigan currently has a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law which includes a mandate to give a standardized test aligned with the Common Core curriculum.  The new Smarter Balanced Assessment the Department of Education was set to use next year would have complied with that mandate.  If the treasury gives a new version of the MEAP, as proponents of the switch favor, Michigan may not be in compliance with its waiver.  Failure to comply with the waiver could have devastating effects on federal funding.

Failure to comply with the waiver could result in all the state's schools being deemed "failing" and forced to spend 20 percent of their federal funds on tutoring and mandatory school choice.
Michigan's schools receive between $800 million and $1 billion in federal Title I funds each year, meaning at least $160 million in funds could be diverted to choice and tutoring if the waiver is revoked. [Id.]

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.", 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. [, 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
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. [, 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, 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 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.

Friday, March 21, 2014

EAA passes House

A bill expanding the Education Achievement Authority passed the House yesterday on a largely party-line vote of 56-54.  Although we haven't posted here a great deal about the fast-moving developments in this matter, we have emailed our list and our membership responded to speak out against this bill.  Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.

At this time, it's not clear exactly what's in the bill.  There hasn't been time to review it.  We'll bring you more careful analysis at a later date.  But, the broad strokes are clear:
The bill passed by the House would expand the district’s capacity to 50, and would reduce the time frame a school must spend at the bottom of the academic heap to two years. [Detroit Free Press, March 21, 2014.]
Final vote on EAA expansion.
So, if this version passes the Senate, the EAA will be able to take over schools more quickly, and take over schools anywhere in the state.  Previous versions of this legislation also conferred the ability to create charter schools on the EAA.  If that becomes law, the EAA could take over schools anywhere in the state (including Lansing), and start spawning spin-off charters.  We have never seen an argument explaining this helps struggling schools.

Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit) was the only Democrat to vote yes. Rep. John Olumba (I-Detroit) also voted yes. Five Republicans voted no: Rep. Jon Bumstead of Newaygo, Rep. Ben Glardon of Owosso, Rep. Peter Pettalia of Presque Isle, Rep. Phil Potvin of Cadillac and Rep. Pat Somerville of New Boston.

It's not clear where this stands in the Senate.  We'll update as we learn more.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Column: Public vision vs. voucher vision

By Brett DeGroff and other Okemos Parents for Schools members

Brett DeGroff
There are two visions of education vying to define Michigan schools — the voucher vision of state and corporate control and the public vision of local control.
The public vision is familiar. For better and for worse, it’s what we have had in Michigan. Through locally elected officials, the community uses public funds to build a publicly owned and operated institution which offers an education to each child.
The philosophy behind the public vision is that the entire community benefits by providing an excellent education for every child. Today’s graduates will be tomorrow’s community members and we are all better off when folks think critically, have the ability to learn new skills, and appreciate the principles of democracy.
The public vision sees education as a direct function of the community. Education is an obligation which demands more than writing a check or issuing a voucher. This obligation demands direct involvement and oversight. These are our kids and our responsibility. Many communities in Michigan are already living up to this responsibility and providing excellent public education.
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.
The voucher vision is built on faith in an entirely different incentive. The voucher vision relies on the notion that people and institutions behave only in their own self-interest. The voucher vision sees a future for Michigan education where every child takes a piece of public education funding and shops in a market of cyber and charter schools.
In the voucher vision, communities have no role in education. The institutions providing voucher education are for-profit corporations or non-public entities and are not accountable to the local electorate. Parents and students who get voucher education can only take their vouchers elsewhere if they are displeased. They have no ownership or ability to impact the school because it’s not their school. In the voucher vision, students and parents are mere customers and the rest of the community is cut out altogether.
Proponents of the voucher vision have cleverly masked it with rhetoric about “choice,” “unbundling,” and money “following” children. Voucher vision proponents have uncapped the number of charter schools in Michigan without providing safeguards for quality. Voucher vision proponents tucked an “unbundling” measure into last year’s school aid budget without public debate. Finally, voucher vision proponents engaged in a secret “skunk works” plan to create cheap schools paid for by voucher cards.
But the voucher vision proponents never give evidence their takeovers and markets produce better results. They never articulate how their takeovers will result in a return to local control. They never explain how they expect challenged communities to rebuild themselves around for-profit corporations. And if anecdotal evidence coming out of the EAA and Muskegon Heights, the country’s first fully privatized school district, is to be believed, the “something” they are doing is not working.
Struggling schools need help. But what they need are the resources to build great public schools to serve as the core of their devastated communities.
The voucher vision is a cynical one based on the idea that citizens won’t or can’t work together to build great schools. It depends on markets and experiments to invent new ways to run schools. It reduces us to mere customers and divorces our schools from their communities and the democratic process.
The public vision is a hopeful one based on ownership and community. It hasn’t always been perfect, but it has produced many great schools and, with investment, it can turn around our troubled schools. Between these two visions, the public vision is the only choice. After all, these are our schools, our kids, and our responsibility.
Brett DeGroff is an appellate attorney and member of Okemos Parents for Schools.  This column was written with input from multiple members of Okemos Parents for Schools and ran in the Lansing State Journal on February 15, 2014.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

EAA support failing

The Education Achievement Authority suffered a major setback Tuesday as the Michigan
Department of Education moved to end it's exclusive agreement with the takeover district.

Now, the MDE has authority to take control of struggling schools through the State School Reform/Redesign District (SSRRD).  In November of 2011, the state signed an agreement with the EAA which gave the EAA the exclusive authority to operate schools referred to the SSRRD.  Tuesday State Superintendent Mike Flanagan started the process to end that agreement:
Flanagan gave formal notice to EAA Chancellor John Covington in a letter dated Tuesday, saying the state would be dissolving the agreement in one year. The provision to give notice is required under terms of the contract.
"In our need to have options in which to place persistently low-performing schools, in addition to the EAA, we need to end the exclusivity provision of the agreement between the EAA and the state," Flanagan's letter states. [, February 19, 2014.]
Also Tuesday, four members of Michigan's State Board of Education spoke out publically against the EAA.  Vice President Casandra Ulbrich and members Michelle Fecteau, Lupe Ramos-Montigny and Kathleen Straus signed a statement calling on legislators to reject an expansion bill currently pending:
"The basic premise of the EAA teaching model is flawed. Putting mostly new, inexperienced teachers in schools whose students have had difficulty learning is not working. While the use of computers in teaching can be very effective, it is only if the teacher in the classroom is fully engaged with the students. Students learn best when they have positive relationships with their teachers," the board members said. [, February 18, 2014]
Nonetheless, the current legislative majority may push through a vote to expand the EAA.  Stay tuned and contact you legislator to let them know you oppose EAA expansion.

Friday, February 14, 2014

EAA expansion; EAA alternative

House Republicans appear ready to move the EAA expansion bill.  Detroit Free Press, February 12, 2014. We've written about the EAA extensively.  It's terrible policy.  But, there are two good pieces of legislation in the house regarding education.  The first would provide an alternative to the EAA through individualized planning for struggling schools. The second would authorize a study to determine what it means to adequately fund our schools and how we take account of dramatically different needs between schools. 

The first bill, HB 5268, was introduced by public education advocate Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton.  MLive, January 29, 2014.  One of the fatal flaws of the EAA is that it takes control away from local districts and mandates a one-size-fits-all fix.  The alternative takes the opposite approach:
Her bill, House Bill 5286, would require schools submitted to the state reform office to undergo an audit by the local ISD to construct a transformation plan to correct problems identified by the audit. It’s in response to claims that an expanded Education Achievement Authority would institute “one-size-fits-all” changes within a district. The bill is before the House Education Committee. [City Pulse, February 10, 2014.]
The second bill, HB 5269, was introduced by Grand Rapids area  Rep. Brandon Dillon.  The idea behind this bill is that different schools face different needs.  Schools in dense population areas have different transportation needs than rural schools.  Schools with high levels of poverty have different needs than schools in affluent areas.  School with high numbers of immigrants have a larger need to teach English as a second language.  Our current funding scheme is inadequate to address this:
This bill would require that Michigan perform a careful study to determine the true cost of providing the kind of public education we expect from our schools - something several other states have done with success. With that knowledge, we can adjust our school funding system to make intelligent choices.
 [MLive, February 9, 2014.]
The EAA alternative, HB 5268, was developed with the assistance of Michigan Parents for Schools, a grass roots advocacy group much like Okemos Parents for Schools.  House Democrats held a press conference to discuss the EAA as well as the two alternative bills:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Startling revelations about the Education Achievement Authority

There was a major push to expand the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) at the end of last year, and it remains a priority in Lansing. We tried to catch you up on the EAA with a series of posts (here, here, and here). Shortly after, the website Eclectablog released the shocking results of its investigation inside the EAA.  Since that initial report, the floodgates have opened.

Eclectablog spoke with EAA teachers, who all required anonymity, and they told stories about huge class sizes, massive turnover, laws being broken regarding resources for special education students, and even kids being physically abused by staff:
  • “One of the things that really has pushed me to speak out is that I learned from another teacher recently that I’m about to get another ten students in my class which will take me to almost 50 kids,” the teacher said. “Another teacher quit and, instead of hiring someone to replace them, they are just redistributing their students to all the other teachers. So, it’s just me and all these kids with no help, no paraprofessionals. It’s just dangerous. Beyond being able to educate that many kids at once all by myself, I’m not confident I can keep them safe from each other. They don’t fit in the room, there aren’t enough chairs, it’s not okay. I have this knot in my stomach and I’m worried sick and stressed out because of it.”
  • “Another reason why students are struggling is because their our schools are set up to be ‘all-inclusive’ so there are no classrooms in the building that are set up just for students in special ed. They’re all in regular classes with general ed students. These students are never pulled out to be supported in the ways that they should be. So, for example, we have severely autistic, aggressive, emotionally-disabled, cognitively-disabled students within the classroom that I’m responsible for educating and managing behavior-wise with no additional support. In a lot of cases, that is a huge violation of the plan — the IEP — that was laid out for them. Those are serious legal issues in a lot of situations that we’re getting ourselves into.
  • “The problem is that I often don’t even see most of these IEPs. Like last year, I didn’t even know which of my students had IEPs until February. Nothing was given to us.”
  • “I’ve actually seen my discipline coach slap a kid across the face.” [Education Achievement Authority teachers speak out on abuse of students and the failure of the EAA, Eclectablog, January 22, 2014.]
After those revelations, State Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood called for the immediate shutdown of the EAA.  Then, another teacher came forward.  They said, in part:
I was a special education teacher with the EAA. I gave IEPs to all of the teachers I worked with, but I had a caseload that was above the legal limit (it varied, but at one point I had 32 kids on my caseload. Well above the limit.) . . .
. . .  A students with special needs cannot be suspended for more than 10 days. After 10 days, we have a manifestation determination meeting to determine if the behavior that they were suspended for is a manifestation of their disability and make adjustments (a behavior plan, schedule changes, etc.) The federal law is very clear about this. Some administrators didn’t think the federal applied to them. I had administrators suspending my students and not putting it into the system and hiding the paperwork from me, or they would put fewer days into the system than the student was actually suspended for. They also sent kids home to ‘think about it’, but that is a suspension in the eyes of the law and counts toward those 10 days. They had discussions with parents to convince them to take their students to another school.. . .
. . .  I witnessed teachers throwing students to the floor and sitting on them, bending their arms behind them, slamming them into lockers, and pinning them against walls (all illegal according to the Michigan Standards for the Use of Emergency Seclusion and Restraint).  . . .
I left because as a special education teacher, I knew that their special education program was violating the law. The treatment of students was making me sick. For my own professional reputation and mental health, I had to stop working there. I miss the kids. I worry about them. [Another EAA teacher speaks out about student abuse and violations of federal law in the treatment of students, Eclectablog, January 28, 2014.]
Another teacher contacted Eclectablog with a bullet point list of items:
  • Making students remove shoes and clothing items to borrow pencils or other basic supplies.
  • One teacher would knock over desks when she was angry with unruly students and joke about her abuses during staff meetings.
  • Making fun of special needs students’ physical or emotional impairments during staff meetings
  • Duck-taping students’ mouths closed
  • Allowing middle school students to verbally/physically bully special needs students who misbehaved in class.
  • One teacher would let students “fight it out” in class. A male student was assaulted so brutally during this teacher’s reading class that his eye was closed shut and one side of his face was swollen for two weeks. The parent filed a restraining order and this teacher was investigated by the police. Amazingly she is still employed at the school.
  • The EAA requires students to attend mandatory summer school. Two teachers did not want to teach summer school so they told their homeroom students that summer school was optional. Only 10% of their students showed up for summer school and were considered truant for three months. The principal suddenly resigned during the summer months so these teachers were not held accountable for the missing students during the summer months.
  • If teachers found a particular student “challenging” or incorrigible she would just issue an informal suspension until parents were forced to pull students from school.
  • Because first year teachers (and seasoned) had no curricular materials and no training for utilizing the Buzz platform (online curriculum) students were encouraged to color or fill out worksheets
  • Teachers who had no formal training or who held interim teaching certificates had absolutely no understanding of grade-level content require ments, appropriate instructional strategies, assessments or interventions. I actually had several “teachers” who never heard the terms scope and sequence, curriculum and state content standards.
  • I had several special needs students in my classroom, but never received their IEPs or support from the special education teacher in our building. Half of them were placed on part-time schedules by the end of the year. [Yet another teacher speaks out about mistreatment of students in the EAA. Contact me if you’re the next, Eclectablog, January 29, 2014.]
The EAA released a report which concluded there were no problems as described by the teachers.  A teacher quickly responded contradicting the EAA report. Then yet another teacher came forward to speak with Eclectablog, and national education advocate Diane Ravitch picked up the story.

Since these revelations came to light, the push to expand the EAA seems to have slowed.  But, this situation seems unstable, and is likely to break in one direction or the other.