You are here

"What's goin' on?"

Dear friends,

These are frustrating times for those of us who fight for strong local public education. Elections have consequences, but they don't change everything. Attacks on community-governed public schools have slowed, but we still have to come up with a strong plan for constructive change. There is great opportunity, but some very large challenges remain ahead of us.

In this issue:
  • School aid budget: promise and politics
  • Detroit literacy suit: is everything better now? (See our op-ed in the Detroit News.)
  • A new direction: building coalitions for strong schools that serve the public

Senate spurns Whitmer budget for business-as-usual

As part of her first executive budget recommendation, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed some important changes in how state school aid funding would be distributed. Building on the work of the School Finance Research Collaborative, the governor's budget shifted much separate "categorical" spending into a weighted funding formula. Districts with large numbers of low-income students, students with disabilities, and students pursuing career and technical studies would receive higher levels of funding. While the overall funding level is modestly increased, this change would bring Michigan more in line with other states that weight funding by the needs of the students in a district, setting the stage for future progress. Base per-pupil funding was increased between $120-180 using a revised "1.5x" formula.

The budget proposal funds most of the increased allocations by taking all state university funding out of the School Aid Fund (close to $500 million) and shifting that to the state's General Fund (where new revenues would be required). The proposal also removes a large number of special earmarks, including some that former Gov. Snyder had tried to remove without success: cutting the base funding of cyber charters; "reimbursements" for non-public schools; and "online algebra tools" and other pork-barrel earmarks from previous years.

The state Senate, however, decided to scrap all that and passed a status-quo budget that highlights a higher per-pupil grant (with an eye on upcoming elections) while coming in $130 million less overall. (At this writing, the House has not voted on a budget.) The base funding grant would increase between $135-270 per pupil under the Senate's "2x" formula. However, the Senate eschewed the cyber school funding cuts and kept most of the earmarks the executive would have removed. However, the Senate did find one item to cut: supplemental payments to high schools, which tend to go mostly to local school districts because most charters are K-8.

We'll be covering the budget more in the coming weeks at mipfs.org.

Detroit literacy suit: is the issue of State power really "moot"?

A week-and-a-half ago, on a day dominated by "no fault" insurance news, the State's Attorney General's office filed a brief seeking to end the Detroit literacy lawsuit. The Federal case, now in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, was brought by the families of several Detroit Public School students who argue that state control of the DPS district resulted in their right to literacy (and equal protection of the law) being violated. The Federal District court, while very sympathetic with their grievances, ruled against the families at trial and in favor of the state (then represented by former AG Bill Schuette). See a more detailed overview here.

Responding to the families' appeal to the 6th Circuit, the State's brief (now representing Gov. Whitmer and other state officials) claims that the case is "moot" because the state government no longer has any important influence over the operations of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District.

We at MIPFS thought that was an absurd claim, and said so in an op-ed article published in the Detroit News.

We do believe that every child should have a right to a quality education, and the state's brief on behalf of Gov. Whitmer and most of the State Board of Education intentionally avoided addressing that issue. (The two Republican State Board members, Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, had their own section of the brief, which argued that no "right to education" exists.)

But we think it is also damaging for the state to be arguing that is no longer has any important levers of control over DPSCD or any school district in Michigan. It's particularly ironic that this argument is being made in the midst of the state budget process, which will set the funding levels and many legal requirements for all public schools in the state. While the state law authorizing the "state reform district" (Section 1280c of the school code) was repealed late last year, the new law also mandated an A-F rating system and tasked the state Dept. of Education with developing mandatory changes which low-performing schools could be forced to adopt.

The state has incredible power over local schools, and the rules about state takeover and emergency management remain on the books. (The current controversy over the proposed closure of Benton Harbor HS is a troubling case in point.) It may be that the Federal courts are not yet ready to recognize a right to education, but our state government should not use that as an opportunity to duck out from under responsibility for conditions that persist in our public schools. We are pleased that newly elected Attorney General Dana Nessel has separated herself from the state's brief and will file one on behalf of the people of Michigan which supports the plaintiffs' arguments. State Board vice president Pamela Pugh also separated herself from the state's argument, maintaining that the state needs to take responsibility for conditions in Detroit (and other) schools.

More on this as the case develops.

New focus: public schools that work for all the people

I'd like to close with short update on where we are headed with Michigan Parents for Schools. While battles in the Legislature and state government are not going away, we think it's time to commit more time and energy to building grassroots support for local public education. So much of what is said today about our public schools totally ignores the huge interest our entire state has in having an educated, responsible voting population. Education isn't just job training; it is intended to mold thoughtful citizens who can fulfill their responsibility to participate in the governance of our communities, our state, and our nation.

We need to have a statewide conversation about what we want from our schools, what "excellent" education looks like, and how we pay for the schools we want for our state's children. We have to get past the mythology of "competition" and the stance that "it's your misfortune and none of my own."

We at MIPFS are under no illusions about this being easy; it will be quite an effort to get our state on board with the idea that we're all in this together and that everyone should lend a hand. We know that different people have very different ideas about what education means and what quality looks like. These will be hard conversations, spanning geographic, economic, ethnic, moral and ideological divides. It is past time to get started. We'll let you know more as our plans come together.

Congrats to the graduates in your lives, and our best wishes for a wonderful summer!

Steve Norton
Michigan Parents for Schools

Drupal theme by pixeljets.com D7 ver.1.1