Around this time last year, Dropout Nation applauded Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s effort to expand the state’s inter-district choice program — and end the practices of Zip Code Education that condemn poor and minority children to dropout factories — by requiring every district to open their doors to any student anywhere. At the same time, we noted that Snyder (and reform-minded counterparts in other states pursuing the same goal) would struggle to make that expansion a reality until they pushed for state governments to take full responsibility for school funding, and essentially voucherize school funding (including using weighted student funding formulas) so that families can access any school option they choose. Ending traditional school funding — especially the use of property tax dollars as a funding source for districts and schools (which account for 34 percent of school funding in the Wolverine State) — would get rid of excuses traditional districts use to oppose all forms of school choice, keep poor and minority kids out of the schools they operate, and refuse to take on other systemic reforms.
Apparently, Gov. Snyder paid attention to the suggestion (or, more-likely, in light of a speech he gave earlier last year, was of the same mindset in the first place), because he is proposing to do something close to that. Under a proposed revamp of Michigan’s school finance law developed on the governor’s behalf by the Oxford Foundation, Snyder plans on essentially voucherizing school funding, with dollars following any traditional district, charter, or blended and online learning opportunity that families choose to fit their children’s needs. Under the plan, which will be introduced by Snyder as part of his proposed 2013-2014 fiscal year budget, a family could even engage in the kind of a la carte shopping for education in the same way they do for communications services; after all, a family may or may not seek out cellphone service from their cable provider. A child could theoretically take traditional classes in one district or charter, while also taking online courses offered by another school provider. This move accepts the reality that a district that may be strong in providing math and science instruction may not have the capacity to provide art classes or even AP coursework (and definitely cannot provide the college-level courses that only universities can offer).
The Snyder plan also moves to end the traditional approach of basing a district’s full-year per-pupil funding on whether a student is in school during one day in the year; the perverse incentives that come from this method explains why districts conduct truancy sweeps and other efforts to get kids into classrooms during the first two months of a school year, then let the kids continue on their way to dropping out into poverty and prison after making numbers. Putting an end to traditional enrollment counts — and only providing districts with dollars based on whether the student is actually attending school — will force districts to look at the underlying reasons why chronic truancy is a problem in the first place, as well as address the issues by providing children with high-quality teaching and strong, college-preparatory curricula.
The Snyder plan’s proposal to restrict districts from gaining per-pupil dollars for 16-to-18 year-olds in General Educational Development programs that also include adult dropouts would also end an incentive for districts to push out students who have suffered from educational neglect and malpractice; high school juniors and seniors made up 22 percent of those taking GED courses in Michigan in 2009, according to a report from the American Council on Education and Pearson Plc, which run the alternative program. The concept of incentivizing students to stay on the path to graduation — and even encouraging them to finish school early — with a $2,500 payment for early completion of school also makes sense. So does Snyder’s proposal to require districts and other online learning providers to prove the success of their programs in order to gain funding; this, along with other proposed incentives, would actually force online providers and districts to provide high-quality education to the kids in their care.
The plan isn’t perfect. Thanks to the state’s archaic and religiously-bigoted Blaine Amendment, families would not be able to use school funding to put their children to high-quality private and parochial schools; although disappointing, it is understandable that Snyder won’t go further given the opposition to the plan that is already emerging from affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, and traditional districts. The fact that the Snyder plan still doesn’t appear to end give the state full responsibility for education funding — or wean districts off their dependence on property tax dollars — also means that districts can still find ways to restrict choice if the stubborn or creative enough to do so. A traditional system such as the Grosse Pointe district outside Detroit, which opposed Snyder’s effort to force it and other districts to participate in the state’s current inter-district choice effort, would still find ways to keep out those poor and minority students from other locales whom they feel would sully their classrooms.
All that said, by voucherizing existing state funding, the Snyder plan does take an important step in expanding school choice. The move will force Grosse Pointe to compete with other districts for the families it serves, especially those dissatisfied with the district’s offerings and more than willing to go elsewhere; it could even spur the expansion of school options — especially charters and online providers — within the communities the district serves. This is true for other districts as well. For children and the families who love them, expanding opportunities to gain high-quality education. No family should have to put up with mediocrity (or failure) and endanger the futures of their children. Every child, no matter who they are or where they live, should be able to attend schools that can help them succeed in school and in life, and meet their needs, whatever they are.
The challenge for Snyder lies in getting the legislation passed by the Wolverine State’s legislature, who will have to deal with complaints from districts and NEA and AFT affiliates who will use the myth of local control — and proclaim that it the plan would put traditional districts out of business — to oppose any changes to the funding formula on which they depend. The fact that the Snyder plan does nothing to stop districts from using property tax dollars to fund their operations belie such local control arguments. The fact that the traditional district model has proven to be a failure in providing kids with high-quality education also makes the defense of the district model rather laughable. Meanwhile Snyder can point to the reality that districts, like other local governments, are merely arms of state governments and thus, have no ability for independent action outside of what state governments decide. This has already been made clear by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hunter v. Pittsburgh ruling, and by the federal government through the No Child Left Behind Act and other laws governing education policy. Given that Michigan state government is ultimately charged under the state constitution with providing education, Snyder and state legislators can do whatever they deem necessary in structuring public education.
But Snyder will have to do more than just argue against local control. He and other reformers will have to make a strong case to families in the grassroots — especially the poor and minority households seeking better opportunities for their children — in order to beat back traditionalist forces. This includes making the strong moral argument that it is the state’s obligation to do all it can to allow families to send their kids to schools fit to their futures. Snyder can point to the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union’s state branch against the Highland Park district (and the state) for educationally failing the children in its care as one example of why the state must overhaul school funding and expand choice.
Snyder will also have to push hard to expand the number of charter schools and online learning opportunities in order to provide the wide array of choices that families will seek if the plan is passed. One step would be to get the Wolverine State’s American Indian tribes to get into the charter authorizing and charter school operating game; the governor can already look to the example of Bay Mills Community College, a tribal college that has authorized 44 charters in the state, and is working with the College Board on efforts to improve the quality of schools it oversees.
One can only praise Snyder for taking the step needed to start a much-needed overhaul of school funding in the Wolverine State. It is an example his fellow state chief executives should follow in their own reform efforts.