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Action alert: stop vouchers for vendors!

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Stop "vouchers for vendors" - let's not make the same mistake as Louisiana!

Dear friends,

The Legislature is in the final days of setting the school aid budget for next year. Parents and other supporters of public education from around Michigan have been saying loud and clear that we want resources to support our local public schools and not be diverted to pet projects or questionable initiatives.

But there is one section of the budget that should worry every Michigander. In his proposed budget, the Governor added a new section that doesn't directly spend any money but has the potential to cost our schools a great deal. This section, Section 21f, would require every school district to allow their students to take two fully online courses per semester.

That doesn't sound too bad, does it? But wait - our school districts will have to pay for the courses, but they don't get to approve who provides the courses or whether the class is rigorous enough to count for academic credit. In some versions of the budget proposal, our schools even have to pay the full amount up front, even if the student doesn't finish. Even better, some versions say that it's the online provider, not the school, which gets to decide if a student has finished and earned credit.

Lots of Michigan school districts offer online classes so that students can fit in courses that they otherwise wouldn't be able to take in high school. That's not the problem. The problem is what happens when we open the door to anybody who says they want to offer a class online.

That's where Louisiana comes in. That state has gone full tilt for what some people call "reform," and part of it was a voucher system that allowed students to enroll in online classes with private companies registered with the state. As with the Michigan proposal, local school districts had to foot the bill. What happened? Well, you can guess: companies from all over came out of the woodwork to offer online classes - good, bad and indifferent - to Louisiana school children, hoping to get their piece of the action. This was supposed to be good for kids.

But wait, it gets better! Just recently, investigative reporting has turned up evidence that out-of-state companies have been fraudulently signing up students for courses they don't need or don't even know about. This article by a network of central Louisiana newspapers describes companies that were going door-to-door in low income neighborhoods, promising families free iPads if they signed up for courses. Some elementary school students were signed up for high school Latin; others were signed up for courses they'd already finished and passed. Many families don't even know how their children got signed up, raising questions about how these companies got their personal information. Thousands of students were signed up inappropriately in what is looking more and more like fraud.

The Louisiana system made it hard for local school officials to see which students were signed up for these online classes, so it took a while for them to see what was going on. They also had a limited amount of time to challenge these enrollments. The online vendors were clearly hoping that no one would notice and that they'd get their full fee from the school district for offering a mirage.

We cannot let this happen in Michigan. Our schools are already under tremendous stress. Inviting in fraud on this scale, skimming off our public education dollars, is the very last thing we ought to be doing. Yet there it is, still included in every version of the school aid budget under consideration.

Just a handful of state legislators are working to hammer out the differences between the state House and Senate versions of the budget. Tell them that we do not want to copy the Louisiana scandal, and that our scarce tax dollars should go entirely to educating our children. "Vouchers for Vendors" has got to go!

Thanks for all your help!

Steve Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools

By the way, if you want more information about the Louisiana story, check out these blog posts by a reporter here and here. It left me speechless and I think you'll feel the same way.
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