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'Hybrid Districts'? Michigan's K-12 Boss Pushes His Vision

How much should local school districts focus on student achievement, to the exclusion or reduction of just about everything else? For Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, the answer is very clear, and he has a five-year plan to go with his answer, which revolves around new county-wide districts.

Instead of the traditional districts that now operate in his state, Flanagan proposed, in a July 8 letter to legislative leaders, what he calls a "hybrid system" for delivering educational services, as part of a eventual transition to "countywide school districts." In the beginning, as part of that transition, a variety of district operations separate from the actual instruction in classrooms would be removed from traditional local district oversight and would instead be placed in the hands of a new county governance structure.

What responsibilities would these new countywide districts have? Flanagan thinks the following services could be moved from local school boards to county districts as part of the transitional hybrid system:

• Transportation systems
• Curriculum development
• Staff training and development
• Educator Evaluation systems (not the evaluations themselves)
• Education Technology
• School Accounting Functions
• School Food Service
• Assessment Coordinating
• Building-level data collection and reporting

As Flanagan notes, the new method for running districts wouldn't be responsible for creating the teacher and administrator evaluations themselves, just the systems that oversee them. The state superintendent also says that eventually, when the districts transition fully to a countywide system, they'll be better on a variety of fronts.

"From my experience as both a local and intermediate school superintendent, I believe that it makes sense to realign in this configuration—providing administrative efficiencies and a better ability to utilize state funding; better absorb the enrollment fluctuations one local school district might be suffering; and providing a more equitable education for all students," Flanagan wrote in his letter.

The superintendent says that geographically large, countywide districts work just fine in other states, including Florida, where the Miami-Dade County district has a robust 354,000-student enrollment. Maryland also has such a system. There are 83 counties in Michigan, more than in either Florida (67 counties) or Maryland (23 counties).

In an interview with WDET radio in Michigan on July 9, Flanagan said he was taken aback by some of the negative reaction to his proposal. Earlier this month, Michigan lawmakers passed a law allowing the state to dissolve financially troubled K-12 districts. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who signed the law, said he hoped troubled districts would merge before the state brought that kind of hammer down.

"I think the only way we're going to save our neighborhood schools, which is real local control ... is if we have an infrastructure of support behind that that's more efficient," Flanagan said.

Remember, a private group with very different ideas about the best governance structure for Michigan schools had been working for months on a proposal to remove districts' "ownership" of students and to create a statewide system of online, open-enrollment courses. The plan, which was overseen by a private nonprofit group, but which apparently kept in close touch with Snyder's office, was scuttled earlier this year. But it will be interesting to see if any future overhauls of district governance adhere closer to Flanagan's vision or Snyder's.

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