Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace
By Phil Power/Bridge Magazine
They say great oaks from little acorns grow. Maybe the same thing will happen as a result of last Tuesday’s meeting in Lansing to consider how to re-work the School Aid Act into the “Michigan Education Finance Act of 2013.”
The School Aid Act was originally written in 1979. It’s been amended many times since. At 178 pages (with appendices), it is considered “exceptionally opaque,” “arcane,” “anachronistic” and “incomprehensible,” according to various folks I asked.
But it is also the basic law through which more than $14 billion is annually appropriated for Michigan schools. So fooling around with it is a big deal. Maybe 150 people gathered in Lansing last week to kick off the process.
It’s almost certain the workings of the act have had a profound impact on the way our schools work. As Richard McLellan*, a highly experienced Lansing lawyer who is overseeing the rewrite, points out in working papers for the meeting, the School Aid Act “is structured around the concept of ‘membership’ in a local school district, whereby a student is essentially treated as the property (and responsibility) of the school district because of the school aid funds that flow to the district through enrollment of pupils in membership.”
In practice, the workings of the act have helped construct a system of education that is made up of distinct kinds, each with separate funding streams: early childhood (i.e. pre-kindergarten); regular K-12 schools; community colleges; four-year universities. And, given the zero-sum mentality that drives all money discussions in Lansing, whenever one asks for more dough, the rest howl in protest.
When Gov. Rick Snyder proposed last April in a special message on education a new “Any Time, Any Way, Any Place” public education system, he was suggesting a model in which the state’s per pupil foundation grant not be tied exclusively to the school district a child attends. That, in turn, leads to the idea of “proficiency-based funding,” in which money moves in response to a student’s demonstrated knowledge and skills, regardless of where achieved.
The obvious question is: If the overall objective is overall student “proficiency,” why should education money be allocated into separate pots for early childhood, K-12, community colleges or universities?
This is not a small matter. Education, in whatever guise, consumes by far the largest share of Michigan taxpayer dollars.
A more powerful and much clearer way of framing this entire subject is to use the phrase “human capital,” suggesting the idea that what we are really doing is investing in each citizen’s stock of knowledge and skills, regardless of what bucket of funds supports it.
By denominating the discussion in terms of human capital, we achieve two important objectives:
In his special message on education in April 2011, Gov. Snyder wrote about the idea of a “state education system that integrates all levels of learning.” What he’s really talking about is an integrated, coherent system of investing in the human capital of Michigan’s citizens, an investment that will product enormous returns in our state’s future prosperity.
Who knows how the re-write of the School Aid Act will turn out. But it’s a big, big subject that’s vitally important to our future.