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Commentary: Michigan’s education future

There’s a lot more than usual going on in this lame duck session of the legislature. The governor is pushing for personal property tax relief for businesses, and for completing the task of converting Blue Cross Blue Shield from a state-regulated charity to a nonprofit mutual insurance company.

There also may be a drive to get some form of legislation to replace the rejected emergency manager law.

But there is a vast amount of buzz going on about something that won’t be taken up in this session, but which could provoke the mother of all battles in the legislature next year.

And that’s a proposal that has the potential of radically altering how Michigan elementary and high school education is funded, and how millions of Michigan kids receive their education.

Months ago, Governor Rick Snyder created a group called the Michigan Public Education Finance Project, and asked them to come up with a method of allowing kids to get their education, in his words, “anytime, anyplace, any way, any pace.“

Their report is now available, and it is raising both hopes and fears. Perhaps its central provision, so far as I understand it, is this: Students would no longer be seen as tied to a district.  They could take as many courses as they want from any school system in Michigan. The current practice of having a “count day” to determine how many kids are enrolled, say, in Saginaw’s public schools, and awarding funding on that basis, would end.

Instead, it would be replaced with a complex system based largely on the number of days each student is enrolled in the district as a percentage of the days the schools are in session, plus some other factors, including standardized test scores.

Well, that sounds like a calculation nightmare. But that‘s not the reason a lot of people have problems with this. While students could theoretically take classes anywhere, it is up to school districts to decide whether or not they are going to have open enrollment. Do you think Bloomfield Hills is going to take Detroit kids with open arms? You know better, and so do I.

Amy Keyser, a parent and long time education activist in Lake Orion, is deeply suspicious. She notes that this project was funded by a shadowy group called the Oxford Foundation, whose two main funders are anonymous. She fears that this is the old voucher plan that Dick and Betsy DeVos were pushing a dozen years ago, and which voters overwhelmingly rejected.

She asks, “Won’t we be setting ourselves up to pick winners and losers?” Keyser fears the losers will be traditional, community-governed school districts. The winners may be rich speculators who see the possibility of big money from the state in return for opening charter schools.

Amy Keyser doesn’t seem to be an ideologue. She knows the present system of student funding doesn’t work, and many community schools and school districts are dysfunctional.

She even likes some of the governor’s priorities. But she worried that this is really a move to destroy public education.

Nothing is going to be settled before New Year’s. But it’s clear that this is a subject that deserves maximum attention from us all.

For if we get it wrong, our kids’ futures may be pretty bleak.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.