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What's the Matter with Michigan?


For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

So--on this Thanksgiving weekend, I'm trying to be more grateful for what's working fine. I'm also trying not to be angry so often. There's a lot to be angry about, from Black Friday and Wal-Mart, to the fact that my teaching colleagues make 1/225th what the average CEO makes.

Big things to get steamed about. Little things to irritate. Mostly, what I'm stressing over this weekend, however, is Michigan, my Michigan--and the Big Scary Plan to gut public funding of community schools by "unbundling" (a euphemism if there ever was one) the services public schools traditionally provide.

It's a complex issue (which makes it even more dangerous). In a nutshell, the proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act (which would replace the existing School Aid Act of 1979) erases school attendance boundaries, allowing students to take their assigned chunk of funding and use it anywhere they like (if the receiving school agrees), including taking courses in multiple locations. The legislation also throws a big, juicy bone to the Wild West of on-line education, reinforces test-based "performance," and gives students $2500 per semester for early graduation.

Reading the entire plan is an exercise in disbelief, anxiety and invisible hand-euphemism overload--a "dynamic choice" system, blah blah blah. Would the good people of Michigan really allow their public education system (which was once highly regarded) to be exploded and then re-marketed, in pieces?

The slogan: Any time, Any place, Any way, Any pace.

Catchy.

The Grand Rapids Press says the plan "merits debate, not immediate partisan dismissal." I'm 100% for bi-partisan debate on the proposal, as long as it's thoughtful, carried out over a significant timeframe, and wide open to everyone who will be impacted (which is pretty much everyone in Michigan). Let's foster a debate that happens any time, any place, any--well, you get it. Let's not have another ugly, tit-for-tat power struggle in Lansing like the Emergency Manager workaround--where the express will of the voters is being denigrated-- or legislative threats to impose right to work.

It's way past time for a discussion on how to genuinely strengthen and adequately fund Michigan schools.

Here are the points I'd like to contribute:

• There's a reason we have school boundaries. They were developed a century ago, as Michigan communities began to proudly erect their own high schools, building stronger on-site educational opportunities for their children and their neighbors' children. We also have school of choice legislation, which allows schools to accept students from outside their boundaries, and the funding that comes with them. And we already know how that works (see: Grosse Pointe). So we already know who will want to participate in "open" enrollment, and who will be unwilling to share their accrued educational goodies. And--not to put too fine a point on it--who wants to offer "courses" to whom.

• While students in high school do select which courses they want to take--within limits--the first nine years of a K-12 education are not currently set up as a series of "choosing courses." In fact, the first six years or so are universally about building a cooperative learning community, mastering and applying basic skills and acquiring foundational knowledge. Any child who has bounced from school to school in the elementary grades will tell you it's a miserable experience. Presumably this idea that MI students will be getting the best of the best via "choice" doesn't apply to third graders--or, really, more than half our students, who are too young to make informed choices and instead need a solid home base, continuity and a series of great teachers.

• Furthermore--haven't public schools already made tons of cooperative arrangements to offer/access German III via distance learning or Brakes & Suspension certification via county-wide Ed Tech centers? Without disrupting the current funding mechanism? Yes, I know what's happened to vocational centers, in the wake of the MI Merit Curriculum and "college for all," but I am deeply suspicious of advertising the wonders of a class here and a class there--or "unbundling" shared-resource plans that are already working.

• Is this really all about the barely-tapped on-line education market? (Cheap!"Efficient!") Because luring secondary and even elementary students into "21st century" on-line charters has been an incredible boondoggle for lots of unsavory but entrepreneurial folks. The kids aren't doing very well, but it takes awhile to figure that out (via testing, of course). In the meantime, somebody gets to be a lucrative start-up, without a lot of upfront, bricks-and-mortar capital. Here's the other thing about on-line classes: they require technology. Bring your own. Another savings for venture capitalists--and another economic dividing line.

• About the $2500 payoff for every semester kids avoid in high school? I'm guessing that was a sop to community colleges and state universities, who are likely to be down with an incentive system that could get 17-year olds through their doors sooner. What other reason would there be to put scarce state money in the hands of teenagers? Of course, they'd have to take extra on-line courses to graduate early... (see previous bullet)

• Has the legislature considered all the auxiliary services and programming that community schools provide, and how they will be impacted by dismantling the funding system? Sports? Clubs? After-school programming, daycare, community education and a place for senior citizens? Ceremonies and events? There's a lot of value and tradition embedded in community schools--isn't that worth a great deal?

My biggest fear is not change. There are plenty of reasons to change funding mechanisms--and lots of other things--in Michigan education policy. Nor is this a partisan argument made by a teacher. In fact, preserving public schools and investing in them is a very conservative idea.
Even Checker Finn has become skeptical about money and reform:

Finn said he has become "cynical" about the for-profit model in education. "Shareholder return ends up trumping the best interests of students," he said. Having watched education management companies for 20 years, "Most of the models I admire today are run by non-profit groups."

My fear is that we will jump too quickly into yet another seductive scheme to "disrupt"--and lose decades of work and good will. I want to be happy this Thanksgiving weekend. That's all.

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