Public Education Finance Act

Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace

Reforming education: A flawed Snyder plan includes good ideas

Battle Creek Enquirer

Gov. Rick Snyder has some compelling ideas for reforming public education. We would need to see safeguards for low income and special needs students before we offer our endorsement for the governor’s plan, but we think it’s a good first step for improving Michigan’s schools.

Critics who argue that schools of choice is destroying public education might find little to like in the draft bill, expected to be introduced as part of Snyder’s budget presentation in February.

Michigan Board of Education president John Austin called it a “voucher system,” and indeed it places an inordinate amount of faith in the ability of markets to correct what ails our schools.

But because the governor is leaving a lot of time for legislators and the public to debate the plan’s merits, let’s focus for a minute on what we think are the better aspects of his proposal:

• The plan would allow students to access online learning from across the state, with the cost paid by the state. Districts that provide online courses would receive public funding based on performance. It’s long past time for districts to embrace virtual schools as a strategy for students who learn best in such environments. We understand the skeptics who believe classroom time is a critical component for learning, but pioneers in the field are already proving the skeptics wrong, and more youth should have this opportunity.

• Snyder’s proposal will provide for per-pupil funding to follow students to whichever districts they use to learn, with one student’s funding potentially split among multiple districts. School of choice is a fact of life in Calhoun County, and we agree with critics who say that some schools have gained at the expense of others. Still, the opportunity to leverage the strengths, assets and facilities of several districts – particularly in Battle Creek – opens a new door for inter-district collaboration. Magnet-school strategies at the regional level could be a game-changer in our community.

• The plan provides a framework for funding based on performance, once the proper assessment and testing mechanisms are in place. The devil is in the details. Identifying the proper assessment matrices will entail a thorny debate, but it’s a debate we need to have.

• The bill would give scholarships of $2,500 per semester, to a maximum of $10,000, to students who finish high school early.Dual enrollment and partnerships with community colleges are already putting students on track for early graduation. We like the incentive to encourage more to follow the same track.

• Encourage year-round schooling by having a 180-day school year spread over 12 months instead of nine, with breaks of no more than two weeks. The current model, based on an agrarian economy, is outdated and counter-productive to learning, and it needs to change.

Let’s be clear: We believe that public money should go to public schools and that charter schools should operate transparently, subject to the same requirement for openness as public schools.

Charter schools, and to some degree schools of choice, are leading us to a dual education system – one in which low income students are less likely to receive an education on par with peers fortunate enough to attend wealthier districts.

It’s a disgrace, and educators and advocates for our young are right to fight that battle. A market-based education model creates winner and losers, and that’s simply unacceptable.

At the same time, the defensive culture of our education system has been painfully slow to adopt innovative approaches. That culture is as much to blame for students being left behind as are the cuts that have crippled schools in recent years.

Snyder’s plan is short on strategies for ensuring the benefits of a quality education are extended to all children, but it provides a good starting point for dialogue.

Let’s get started.