STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Choose your own education: a proposed K12 funding model

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Governor Rick Snyder put Michigan’s educators on notice last year when he described the state’s education system as broken and outdated. He said it’s time for a new type of public education system, one that allows K-12 students more school choice.

But does it mean choice for all students?  To find out, we called up Richard McLellan. A little background on McLellan: he's a lawyer; he runs the nonprofit Oxford Foundation; he was the founder of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.

McLellan was tasked by Governor Snyder to come up with a new way to educate Michigan kids, one that included "an anytime, anyplace, any pace, anyway model of public education where students would have more access to educational resources."

McLellan spent six months talking to education stakeholders before he wrote the 300 page draft proposal for the "Michigan Education Finance Act," which would replace the School Aid Act of 1979. Some supporters say the proposal is packed with school choice, critics say the proposal will result in a complete dismantling of public education. For the sake of this story, we'll call it the Oxford Proposal.

Click hereto read a draft of the proposal.

A few main points about the proposal:

  1. More school choice: Education will no longer be "bundled," meaning a student doesn't have to take all their classes at one school or within one district. Students would be able to shop around and pick and choose classes to take in from any public school district* in the state.
  2. The money follows the student: Currently, nearly 100% of state funding for a school is determined by how many students show up on Count Day in the fall. Under the new proposal, students hold the purse strings, and state funds follow them wherever they take classes.
  3. More schools: The proposal calls for the creation of numerous new schools including non-profit charters, charters run by for-profit management companies, and online providers.

*School districts can opt out of participating in open enrollment, just like they do now.
Michigan School Board of Education president John Austinhas numerous problems with the Oxford Proposal and calls it a voucher program in disguise. He says he’s all for more school choice, but he says the state doesn't "need more new, bad schools or vendors in the marketplace."

Austin says new schools need to be high quality and adhere to Michigan's "college and career standards" that all current schools have to follow. The Oxford proposal calls for "any off-the-shelf test that these schools can provide and use that as the benchmark," says Austin. "Then you can’t even compare [schools]! It’s basically anything goes education."

Austin's point is echoed in a paper written and approved by the State Board of Education. The document contains critiques and recommendations in response to the Oxford Proposal. Here's an excerpt:

We now have clear accountability standards and system for improving or closing non-performing schools. All new choices and financing changes that allow money to follow to new choices must be accompanied by quality control expectations including: A public accountability system and transparent reporting requirement that reports clearly by public body authorizer (district, ISD, Community College, University) the performance of all authorized schools in apples-to-apples form to aid in identifying the performance, and hold accountable for performance the public body authorizer (whether school district board, or university board of trustees) and operator (whether a school district board, charter management organization, or online operator); Legislation for new schools must contain quality control criteria, and school choice also must contain quality control criteria. Legislation allowing for any new schools of any form must be accompanied by a prohibition on the poorest authorizers expanding their portfolios, and a corresponding prohibition on those authorizers engaging management companies or other educational operators whose portfolio of schools do not meet an appropriate quality and performance standards; or in the case of new operators, provide sufficient evidence of capacity and plan that would credibly indicate an ability to deliver a quality education.

Another point raised by critics of the Oxford Proposal: How are K-12 students going to get from school A to school B in the middle of the day?

Well, for students like 15-year old Tanesha George of Detroit, it would be all but impossible. George gets up at 4:30 a.m. every week day in order to catch three city buses to get to her high school in Dearborn Heights. Both her parents work, and even if she was old enough to drive, she says her family doesn't have a spare car she can use, and funding for transportation is not included in the Oxford proposal.

"If you’re not providing transportation," says Austin, "if you’re not able to execute a choice to get to the community college, to get to the school district to take that better AP calculus course. Who are we advantaging with this choice? We’re advantaging those who are already advantaged."

Richard McLellan, the proposal's author, acknowledges that transportation is an issue, as is the issue of whether or not all kids have access to a computer and reliable internet in order to take online classes.

But he's quick to point out that Michigan's current public education system is not some shining beacon on a hill. There are very real problems with the system. A 2011 report by the nonprofit Education Trust Midwest shows Michigan students rank near the bottomin nearly every subject and grade.

"We have over 230 schools where zero children were college-ready when they got their high school diplomas," says McLellan. (His data is based on the spring 2010 ACT test.) "They’re falling through the cracks right now. Are we going to exacerbate that problem? I don’t think so."

(To read more about the context of this statistic, go here.)

McLellan's proposal is just that, a proposal. It’s up to Governor Snyder to decide which parts - if any - he wants to include in his budget recommendations for next year.

The Oxford Foundation is accepting public commentsthrough Friday, Dec. 14.

The Michigan Parent Teacher Association (PTA) released their own list of comments and recommendations for the Oxford Proposal after this story ran. Their requests echo recommendations made by the Michigan Board of Education, including calls for quality assurance for all schools, and a no opt-out policy for school districts. You can read the full document here.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.