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Flanagan: School Aid Rewrite Needed

Gongwer News Service

The state needs a new School Aid Act, but Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, in a recent interview with Gongwer News Service, warned against the excesses that sunk the Educational Achievement Authority for last session.

Mr. Flanagan said he expected the right solution could be found for school aid, and that the agreement reached too late on the EAA would see quick action this session.

And he urged teachers particularly to move on from the right-to-work discussion to get back to the education issues yet to be resolved.

Governor Rick Snyder had called on the Oxford Foundation, and Richard McLellan, to develop a new School Aid Act, but the report on that project intended to hit Mr. Snyder’s desk before the end of last year is still being finalized and the governor has said the proposal will not be part of his 2013-14 budget proposal due out next month.

Mr. Flanagan said he is looking forward to the school aid changes. “I’m taking a cue from the governor, and I’m supportive of the state aid rewrite,” he said. “I just hope that when we get to that, we don’t overreach.”

“For me, the overreach would be to try to do everything at once,” he said. “That’s why I think the governor was right to take a deep breath and let’s do this right.”

Mr. Flanagan said he understands one of the goals or rewriting the law is to make it even clearer that money follows students where they choose to be educated, but he said that has to be reconciled with federal requirements.

“We can’t figure out how to parcel out federal accountability if you unbundled, for financial reasons, a kid can take a course here, take a course there,” he said.

He said that discussion is particularly important given that the bottom 5 percent of schools face movement to the EAA or other sanctions.

“On the other hand, I’d be somewhat optimistic we could help pioneer that,” he said of accommodating both choice and accountability.

He urged, though, that such pioneering be done cautiously. He said any plans for choice options, beyond the current charter school system, should begin at high school.

“I think you need to learn through doing this with a high school first. There are already natural segments,” he said. “I don’t think we should even touch elementary education. It’s hard to envision, even, for a first grader.”

But some change does need to happen.

The current law at least needs revision to better align all of the provisions. “You have this patchwork of stuff that’s been added over 30 years,” he said. There are a number of sections that have been interpreted in conflicting ways, he said.

Though he does not technically work for the governor, Mr. Flanagan said he would leave any discussions of the budget contents until after the governor releases his proposal. He jumped the gun on that discussion once under the prior administration, and he said it did not go over well, especially since some of the things he had announced as his priorities were not included in the governor’s budget.

But as to the department seeing additional funds for the coming fiscal year: “I’m optimistic. It depends how revenues go whether we can get some more support.”

Mr. Flanagan said the department’s needs are not that large. “We don’t need a whole lot,” he said. “I don’t know what they did with the 2000 people.”

The department currently has fewer than 500 employees, he said. “I had a lot more people as an intermediate superintendent.”

Mr. Flanagan urged teachers not to let the recent passage of right-to-work flavor their discussions on other key issues, like the school aid rewrite. “It is what it is, so let’s move on,” he said. “There are things that will have to be done.”

Not that the push for right-to-work did not concern him. “I’ve been most worried about demoralizing teachers,” he said. “Though I don’t think that’s the intention, I think we’re on the edge of losing them.”

Mr. Flanagan said he supported the unions on collecting dues. “For those who want to have the same kind of representation, they should pay their dues,” he said. But he said the president of one local union expected that half of the teachers would stop paying dues under the new law.

So he echoed the governor’s position on where unions stand now: “Unions have to show why it’s worth the investment. That maybe means they have some reform to do.”

Among the issues Mr. Flanagan said needed to be addressed in the coming year, on their own merits, is the EAA, but he expected relatively quick action on that issue after the work last year.

“I came out against a number of the provisions because it was an overreach,” Mr. Flanagan said of the original legislation. But he said most of his objections had been addressed in an agreement reached too late in the session to make it to a vote.

Among his key concerns were provisions that would automatically move any school in the bottom 5 percent of schools to the EAA and moving appointment of the school reform officer, who decides what schools to move, to the governor.

“They got most of that out but they couldn’t quite pull it together the last day,” Mr. Flanagan said. “I honestly do give credit to the House and Senate to try to get that resolved.”

While Mr. Flanagan said he should have a role in the EAA and the schools assigned there, he said he would prefer not to have a roll in emergency manager appointments. “I’m hearing that the interpretation is that I have to conduct the hearings. I wish I didn’t,” he said. “That was tough duty to try to conduct the hearings in Detroit.”

He said assisting the districts in deficit, and those nearing it, takes substantial resources. “We’re overwhelmed with 41 deficit districts and working with them,” he said.

There is potential for that number to grow, he said. “We have a lot on the edge.”

But he said the system of triggers to alert the state, and districts themselves, that they are reaching that edge could be helpful, he said. “People don’t want to be in deficit, but sometimes they just don’t see it coming,” he said.

The greatest difficulty districts face in balancing their budgets, he said, is declining enrollment. “That’s the single biggest thing that they miss,” he said.

Mr. Flanagan said he expected a change in focus for the department beginning this year.

“I’m almost seven years in. We spent most of that on traditional K-12,” he said. “The things that needed to happen for K-12 have largely been put in place.”

That means working on access to pre-school education and to college, he said.

The governor helped in those efforts with some recent reorganization of departments, Mr. Flanagan said. “Great Start was just move to us last year, so now we’ve got a venue (to discuss early childhood),” he said.

While early childhood education has been a priority for the department and the Board of Education for several years, the programs were split between Education and Human Services.

But he said there also needs to be more ways for high school students to earn college credits.

Much of the focus on earning college credits has been on dual enrollment, where high school students take college courses paid by the school district. “We’re dealing with the funding dilemma where there are some disincentives to make that happen,” Mr. Flanagan said.

Dual enrollment is not, however, the only option. “A lot of this is helping the locals understand (how to provide the credit),” he said. “Why isn’t every high school offering (advanced placement) in virtually every area? To me that one doesn’t require anything more than us not so much pushing as a lot of them don’t even think about it.”

While the pieces for K-12 to run well are in place now, Mr. Flanagan said the department does need to be working on future need. “We’re really going to keep our foot on the pedal for teacher preparation,” he said.

In part that will mean developing ways to be sure teachers are ready to enter the classroom or are fit to remain there. “We’re going to try to come up with a better metric or more relevant metric,” he said.

But it will also mean changing the way teachers are prepared. The current process is not on track to keep up with the students coming down the pipe, he said, expecting that many will be like his granddaughter.

“She’s 2 years old and already using an iPad,” he said. “It’s hard to move teacher prep to get ready for these kids.”

His recent move to force some institutions to drop some of their teacher programs for being ineffective, he said, was one step in getting the needed changes. “I think it was a wake-up call for all 32 teacher prep institutions,” he said.

But school districts will also have to be involved in the process, he said. There has been growing effort to develop mentoring systems, and he said those will have to run both ways in the coming years.

The young people coming in need help with the things you can only really learn on the job, Mr. Flanagan said. “The ones that typically leave leave because they can’t manage the kids,” he said.

Older teachers can help with that, but then can also be exposed to new teaching methods. “The best thing of all would be people coming in with new strategies,” he said. “We can’t take 100,000 teachers and run them all through a new teacher prep institution.”

The state also needs to come up with incentives for the schools to produce the needed types of teachers, Mr. Flanagan said. In addition to producing about twice as many teachers as the state actually has open positions in a year, he said they tend to lean toward elementary education when the need is for special education and world language teachers.

“We’ll probably find a way to put points in their assessment for helping with supply and demand,” he said.

Mr. Flanagan said he was trying himself to balance the need for experience and for new ideas in his current post. He has a three-year contract past the seven years he has already served in the post.

“I would plan to do that. Maybe one beyond that,” he said. “It’s the hardest job I ever had. That’s about what I could do and still be energetic.”

On one hand, he lamented the apparently rapid turnover in chief state school officers. “January 1, I’ll be the longest-serving chief in the country,” he said. “You can’t get stuff done if you don’t have continuity…Then it’s always good to get new blood, new thinking.”

His current tenure makes him also one of the longest-serving state superintendents for Michigan. He is the fourth over the last 20 years, and only John Porter (1969-1979) and Phillip Runkel (1980-87) have served longer.

Granted, Mr. Flanagan’s term depends on the good graces of the board, but he said he has those for now. “I think I have a good relationship with the board and the governor, even when we don’t all agree 100 percent,” he said.