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Heads Up, America! Your Schools Are in Danger

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By Joan Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Kappan magazine (PDK International)

How would your neighbors react if they saw this headline in their morning newspaper:

Local school districts being dismantled,
students ordered to find their own schools

Of course, the first flaw in that thinking is that people are still picking up and reading morning newspapers or that their newspapers still actually carry news about K12 education. But, once you get past those points, how do you think your neighbors would react to seeing that news?

If proposals like one recently revealed in Michigan are successful, that headline could become reality in communities across the United States as Republican-dominated statehouses try to "unbundle" funding from school districts, essentially abandoning traditional attendance zones in favor of wide-open school choice and cyberlearning. (Read two pieces from the November 2010 Kappan about unbundling. The first is an article by Rick Hess who is a proponent of the plan; the second is my Editor's Note in the same issue about my opposition to such an idea.)

At the behest of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Public Education Finance Project recently released its plan to overhaul Michigan's public education funding system — and hence, the entire system for public schools — to achieve his vision of "any time, any place, any way, any pace" public school learning model. (Richard McLellan, a Michigan attorney who was one of the architects of a failed effort in 2000 to introduce vouchers into the state, has re-emerged as an architect of this plan, which should raise many questions about the ultimate direction this is headed.)

The lengthy plan is essentially a statewide school choice plan in different clothing. The proposal would abandon existing school district attendance boundaries by removing district "ownership" of students. A local school district could still decide whether to participate in open enrollment/statewide school choice, which raises significant questions about which districts would participate and which would opt out.

Whether districts opt into the choice plan, however, the funding proposals would affect all districts. In popular new edu-jargon, the proposal would "unbundle" funding so that local school districts would no longer "own" students and receive a per-pupil amount based on a single student-attendance Count Day each semester. Instead, funding would "follow the student." Funds would go to local school districts based on enrollment each month and to online course providers — possibly other school districts, possibly private vendors — according to the portion of education provided by each to a particular student. Funding would somehow incorporate a funding formula based on student achievement using assessment tools that have not yet been developed.

Aside from the obvious bureaucratic nightmare of having funding going every which way for every one of the state's 1.5 million K12 students, I fear this package is, once again, aiming in the wrong direction.

As a longtime Michigan resident, a former school board president, and former education reporter at the state's largest newspaper, I've seen Michigan's funding formula at work, and I have little question that it needs revamping. The widespread inequity in the system that was supposed to be rooted out during revisions to the school aid formula during the last century is still evident. But the latest attempt to revise school funding is not about improving equity. Instead, this plan would introduce even more inequity into an already troubled system.

Families that can afford to buy homes in affluent, high-achieving districts will continue to do so. Families that are forced to live in poor, low-achieving districts will either suffer with the status quo or bear the burden of shopping for schools that will provide a quality education for their children — just as they do now in so many low-achieving districts. When they drive the distances necessary to enroll their child in that quality school, they will take one more step toward destroying the communities where they live.

When I get past the logistics of the proposals, I'm troubled by the loaded language of the architects — especially "ownership" of students, which I believe is a bald attempt to summon images of chains and slavery among African-American parents and win their support for a variety of choice measures. Elsewhere, the authors have said the plan is aimed at "lessening the burdens of government," an almost laughable concept. What "burdens of government"? Ensuring high-quality public education for every child is exactly the work that governments should be doing. It's not a burden; it's a privilege. We've reached a time when those in power should begin acting as if they had a sacred trust instead of complaining about the "burden" of having to educate children. Instead, they're ready to throw up their hands and hand off this precious task to seemingly anyone willing to take the job.

If Americans don't take time away from reading ads about Christmas sales, they may soon find that someone has sold their schools right out from under them.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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