The school year is about a month away, but public education in Michigan is a front-burner issue these days. Two unrelated issues in Lansing offer an idea of the complexity and the challenge of improving a system that many agree needs a radical overhaul.
The state Education Department is pushing for changes in how schools are accredited, or certified to do business. Almost all schools are accredited with no question, even as huge numbers of students fail to meet proficiency standards. Education officials are moving toward an approach that’s based on test results: More than 200 schools would be at risk to close.
John Nixon, the state’s budget director, meanwhile, asks if Michigan funds its schools properly. While falling tax revenues have decimated general spending, the state School Aid Fund has been protected by guarantees of sales tax, property tax and lottery revenues. As Nixon said, “a lot of this stuff was put in place 15, 20 years ago when Michigan looked totally different.”
The two proposals illustrate the two tracks that school reform can take: demanding more from educators school by school vs. shaping outcomes with state dollars.
Gov. Rick Snyder has identified education as a priority, and so far has flexed his muscles with how he manages state finances. He took a bold approach with the School Aid Fund, moving some $400 million from elementary, middle and high schools to the college system. He supports school consolidation, or at least collaboration. His budget ties some aid for schools to their ability to manage soaring health-insurance costs.
None of those ideas touch the classroom directly, but the Education Department idea does. The accreditation proposal seeks to measure a school’s performance and put it out of business if it is falling short.
Apply pressure at the classroom level? Or change the way schools are funded?
The reality is, the two are intertwined.
Michigan can demand more out of its 550 school districts. It has toughened graduation requirements; it can insist on better-educated teachers and it can more thoughtfully measure and reward schools’ performance. Most effective schools are, really, local success stories, the products of engaged parents, good teachers and a strong principal.
Still, there was an outcry when Snyder moved money to higher education for a good reason: Schools need stable funding to operate. That was a premise behind the voter-approved Proposal A, and it still holds true. You cannot attract high-quality teachers if most other professions pay much better.
Snyder, Nixon and lawmakers will be playing with fire if reforming the School Aid Fund leaves schools without the money to meet the higher expectations that taxpayers rightly demand.
Michigan needs better schools. That starts with raising the bar for what we expect from them, and spending enough money so they can meet those demands. Education reform is a critical challenge for Michigan. No one should think it is as easy as A-B-C.
— THE JACKSON CITIZEN PATRIOT