With the election behind and a lame duck session in front of them, we can expect the Michigan legislature to move rapidly on some loose ends. Advancing Gov. Rick Snyder’s education reform agenda will be near the top of that last. So where are we?
Let’s start with a refresher on Gov. Snyder’s vision and the excerpt from his April 27, 2011 “Special Message on Education Reform” that sent the most chills down the collective spine of Grosse Pointe stakeholders.
I am proposing a new ―Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace public school learning model. Michigan’s state foundation allowance should not be exclusively tied to the school district a child attends. Instead, funding needs to follow the student. This will help facilitate dual enrollment, blended learning, on-line education and early college attendance. Education opportunities should be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
A model of proficiency-based funding rather than ―seat time requirements will foster more free market ideas for public schools in Michigan. This includes mandatory schools of choice for every public school district. Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential. Resident students in every district should have first choice to enroll, but no longer should school districts be allowed to opt out from accepting out-of-district students. In the event more out-of-district students wish to enroll than space allows, the school should conduct a random lottery to determine acceptance. I will propose legislation to accomplish this change.
(Michigan Go. Rick Snyder, “Special Message on Education Reform,” April 27, 2011, p. 7)
Gov. Snyder and dutiful legislators pressed hard for this last year and did indeed accomplish much, namely the uncapping of charter schools. But the controversial effort to “mandate choice” failed in large part. Local districts still maintain the right to not accept out-of-district students. However, participation in schools of choice is codified in state law as a “best practice” and thus some state funding hinges on that.
By no means is that the end of the story. In July 2012 Gov. Snyder appointed longtime Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan to oversee the Herculean task of re-writing Michigan’s School Aid Act of 1979. And in case there would be any doubt as to what guides this effort, this excerpt from a recent Oxford Foundation memorandum makes it clear:
This Paper seeks to outline the elements of changes in Michigan’s traditional public school model necessary to fully implement Governor Rick Snyder’s “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” proposals for public education.
True to his idiom, Gov. Snyder is resolute in his commitment to the original April 2011 vision and he’s assembled the team to make it happen. The Grosse Pointe bias of opposition to mandated school choice has significantly colored local analysis of the issue. The scope of the “borderless school” concept is now quite different and perhaps more ambitious than mandatory choice.
This conclusion is based on my analysis of the original “borderless schools” proposal. I summarized the research here and reached this conclusion. Participation in school choice, both through charter schools and in traditional public school choice is massively on the rise. Why would the state seek legislation to accelerate that when it was already happening organically?
Bias against forced choice may provide the answer. Stakeholders in traditional – and successful – public school systems translate borderless to mean migration from one district to another. Based on statements from the Oxford Foundation, led by Richard McLellan, borderless has a different meaning.
The existing public school model can be viewed as primarily a “bundled” model where each student enrolls or is assigned to a specific school, which thereafter attends to all his or her education needs.
(The Oxford Foundation, “Update on Public Education Finance Project,” p. 2)
Note the use of the word “assign.” Among the education reformers, the assigning of students is the core of the problem – despite the fact that families make choices about where to live based in large part on the quality of the schools. The antidote to assignation, in the view of the free market reformer, is choice.
My hypothesis is that Gov. Snyder and the reform minded advisers surrounding him see the political, and perhaps financial, roadblocks to the previous vision of borderless schools. As charter school advocates, they also see the market barriers to compete with more scale.
They’ve seen the market data that shows charter school adoption among lower elementary students is much higher than high school. Why? Mainly because it’s much more expensive to provide the rounded education consumers expect of high schools that offer a broad range of course options as well as co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. And it would be naive to think such a well-rounded high school experience is not valued in the college admissions process.
So how then can the charters compete? In a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy, you don’t compete directly. You find a way to allow students to participate in those expanded offerings while delivering directly the core academic services better suited to the charter model. In other words, you “unbundle” the service elements of the high school. The Oxford Foundation says so themselves.
The elements of a high school diploma will be identified and disaggregated in order to explore ways the complete education process can be delivered through multiple public education providers in an effective way.
(The Oxford Foundation, “Disaggregating High School Education,” p. 1)
This same paper then lays out the different sourcing options available to the 21st century free choice consumer as follows:
- District schools
- Intermediate district schools
- Special education center programs
- Charter school corporations (public school academies, schools of excellence, urban high school academies, strict discipline academies)
- Cyber school corporations
- State-run schools such as the school for the deaf
- Prison schools
- State Public Universities
- Community Colleges
- The Michigan Virtual School, a private organization, acting through public schools
- Private education providers, acting through and under the control of public school authorities (individual teachers, education management organizations, private special education providers, etc.)
This is a very telling list particularly as it calls out not only charter and cyber school providers, but also “private education providers.” Constitutionally Gov. Snyder and Richard McLellan know that vouchers are prohibited in Michigan, but now we see why a constitutional lawyer leads this effort.
The Oxford releases go to extreme efforts to lay out these constitutional constraints and then provide means to vavigate through or around them. They want to take this as far as they can within the boundaries of the law. Here’s a typical excerpt:
For purposes of implementing the unbundling approach in the draft bill, Peter is going to include the concept of an “enrollment district,” i.e., the school district a student and his parents would select as the primary school authority for the maintenance of records and payment of public funds for the student’s education. For most students who select to continue to receive a bundled education, the enrollment district would be the district or charter school the student selects.
(The Oxford Foundation, “Update on Public Education Finance Project,” p. 3)
The unbundling concept then allows the reforms to move forward within the bounds of the law, at least in Oxford’s view.
What do we make of all this? To give this reform effort the benefit of the doubt, it’s intriguing and certainly student centered. Allowing a student to assemble/aggregate/bundle their educational program by picking the best of the best for their interests is a noble concept.
But this philosophy runs counter to others that view public schools as community centered institutions. Participation in public schools, by this view, manifests a bond among the individual student, their families, taxpayers, and their communities. In public schools, the intent is to create a sense of citizenship. I would argue private schools do the same, particularly those that are faith based. Would this not be possible in the “unbundled” approach? Not necessarily, but it clearly places the individual ahead of the community.
Leaving this philosophical debate aside, this vision is also problematic financially. This “picking and choosing” is what we’ve seen out of charters and special needs students. I’ve treated this subject before in my analysis of the disproportional (selective?) enrollment of special needs students in charter schools.
In this envisioned “unbundling” the School Aid Act would double down on leaving the more complex and expensive educational elements to the traditional public schools by extending it to non-core academics, performing arts, and co-curricular activity.
This particular reform movement wants to believe it is progressive. In some respects it is, but in others it’s rather archaic in its foundation. Take a look at this excerpt from the Oxford Foundation’s analysis:
As the definition quoted above states, education is about “general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”
Assuming a high school student has basic literacy, numeracy and social skills, the intellectual content of high school should be focusing on transmitting the facts, values, skills to prepare a person for adulthood, including being ready for employment or further education.
(The Oxford Foundation, “Disaggregating High School Education,” p. 6)
Many would argue that it’s archaic to think of education as the “transmitting of facts,” the view of the student as the empty glass filled by the lecturing teacher or the recorded video transmission in the case of the cyber school. Thus it’s even more befitting for this flank of the reform movement to label the student as a “consumer.”
This is the bedrock of the unbundled model. The student moving from source to source certainly amplifies the opportunity to “consume” from various specialized sources, but de-emphasizes embedding within a community where the knowledge, skill, and sense of community may be applied for the greater good.
These are the philosophical extremes marking the education reform dialog. If this “unbundled” approach to education is codified into law the market will indeed determine which model is preferred. If we choose to give the benefit of the doubt to all involved, the options in and of themselves need not be viewed as bad things for all, but merely represent the expansion of available options.
Those who view their children as empty glasses to be filled by real and virtual transmitters will have their option. Those who view education as a process occurring within the context of a community of citizens will have theirs.