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Austin Back to School 2013 Editorial: The Most Important Issue

As students head back to school, WDET asked some of Michigan's most influential experts and policy makers to answer the question: What is the most critical issue facing education in Michigan and how can it be solved? Here is an editorial from State Board of Education President, John Austin.

Back-to-school time in Michigan is less happy than it should be. What should be a joyous time of learning, discovery and re-connection is now a time of anxiety and stress. Why? Our states commitment to high-quality, free public education is diminished, our schools degraded, educators demoralized. Fifty – five school districts are in the red; some schools are closed, others cutting arts, music, and phys-ed. Teachers have been laid-off, piling more students in the classrooms left. We must overhaul the way we organize and finance education. A dated funding formula, funding cuts, and destructive new school creation policies have cracked its foundation. It’s been 20 years since proposal A last overhauled our system. It fixed gross inequities, and ended an over-reliance on local property taxes. But the education and economic world has changed, and we must change with it. Last week a bi-partisan workgroup of State Board Members and Legislators met —to look for solutions. We were joined by alumni of the bi-partisan group of Legislators who designed proposal A. These wise elders pointed out a number of structural issues behind the crisis:

• K-12 Funding has fallen in real terms by 12% over ten years, including $700 million lost from cutting a business tax that funded schools, and diversion of nearly $500 million from K-12 to higher education and pre-school.

• Creation of hundreds of new schools, first charters and now cyber-only schools (most of which are run by for-profit companies). In expanding these schools the Legislature and Governor rejected quality controls. Poor-performing schools are multiplying fastest—along with questionable cyber-only education. This leads to a double-whammy: when students choose new schools that don’t deliver, they lose, as do students left behind in schools with diminished resources.

• The foundation grant model intended by Proposal A architects to provide flexible resources for existing public schools, has unintended consequences in an education market place. It creates incentives to provide the cheapest education possible, and pits schools against each other in a fight for students and dollars.

• Disinvestment, combined with declining student enrollments, mean many district’s budgets have shrunk 25-30%; creating a death spiral of diminished programming chasing away even more students. If that weren’t enough there are other big problems :

• Mushrooming costs for public school employee retirements

• No state financial support for school buildings and technology— hitting poor communities hardest

• Virtual elimination of Proposal A’s funding stream for poor and at-risk students

• A financial disincentive for postsecondary course-taking and credit earning while in high school

• New demands: higher academic standards, new teacher accountability and school grading systems— without new resources. So how do we fix this? How do we structure and fund an education system that supports performance, quality and outcomes?

• Spend money differently to support rich learning and better outcomes. We should pay more for full-service schools--with in-person teaching, career counselors, arts, music -- and certainly a lot more than for cyber only. Pay more for career-technical programs, early/middle colleges and dual enrollments that deliver high school and postsecondary job-ready, credentials. More for high schools than elementary schools. And spend more on at-risk students again who need better teachers, tutoring, enrichment and wrap-around support.

• Fix our policy for “new schools” and school choice. There is a place for charters and cyber schools. Charters that provide high quality new choices where they are needed to replace failed schools; or where (as in the top performing states) they are developed by school districts to create better, expanded choices. Cyber schools that work with at-risk, or the (small) percentage of students who learn best in an “on-line-only” setting. Neither should be designed principally to make money.

• Invest in teachers: The most powerful driver of achievement is excellent teaching. Michigan, should--as leading states and countries like Finland do—invest more directly in teacher preparation, training and ongoing career support.

• Require all public school employees to participate in the teacher pension retirement system

• Allow for local enhancement millages (prohibited under Proposal A), if a portion of the money raised is shared with less-well off schools and districts.

• Encourage regional sharing of non-instructional services

Even with these reforms—excellent education will take more money. Cutting taxes for years has meant diminished support for our schools. Michigan’s parents and children want our schools to work, and they are willing to support them. As former State Representative Glenn Oxender—one of the Proposal A architects said. “People ask if we can afford to pay for education? I say: can Michigan afford NOT to?” John Austin is President of the Michigan State Board of Education. Find him @John_C_Austin

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