school finance

Will the new Michigan education funding study have a political path toward implementation or take a cruise to nowhere?

Students learning alphabet with digital tablets (Ariel Skelley | Getty Images)

Three weeks after a new study recommended sweeping changes to Michigan’s school funding system, the question remains: Could it have an impact, or will it join previous funding studies on the shelf?

Advocates who hoped that Gov. Rick Snyder would take up the cause in his last year in office now assume little will happen immediately. That’s because Snyder did not signal any interest in his State of the State and budget address in overhauling the way the state allocates funds to schools, even as he indicated he would support increasing per-pupil funding.

“We listened with great interest in the State of the State address hoping the governor would bring that problem forth to make it a legacy in his last year to increasing and properly funding education in the state, said David Crim, a spokesperson for the state teachers union. “One would think this would be one of his priorities, but we were very disappointed it wasn’t mentioned.”

But they say they are hopeful the study can gain momentum next year, when Snyder’s successor takes office and Republican lawmakers might be less focused on appealing to voters by cutting taxes.

“The governor is in his last year, and in his last State of the State address says we need to significantly and for the first time increase investment in K-12, which is good — but the problem is the governor is out of gas,” said John Austin, immediate past president of the State School Board and director of the Michigan Economic Center.

While the School Finance Research Collaborative study released Jan. 17 found Michigan schools cannot compete nationally or adequately serve children’s needs without additional funding and resources, so did the March 2017 21st Century Education Commission report, commissioned by the governor, and the June 2016 Michigan Education Finance Study and nothing happened with them. That’s why some leaders believe the study will be shelved like others before it — unless something drastically different happens.

That includes pressing political candidates to support the report’s recommendations — and holding them to it once they take office, according to Austin.

“Anybody running for governor… should, in my view, run with the study as part of their platform and say if elected, ‘I’m going to implement proper support for great public education for every kid in Michigan,’” Austin said. “And if a governor is elected on that platform and if the legislature changes, that’s when we’ll see some action.”

The collaborative — a 22-member team assisted by 300 educators and others from around the state — spent 18 months and nearly $900,000 to reach its findings. So it makes sense that getting the findings adopted might take time, according to Robert Moore, project director for the School Finance Research Collaborative study and the deputy superintendent of finance and operations for Oakland Schools.

“This is a journey, not an event,” Moore said. “We’ve got to get started because we’re slipping nationally and we’re doing terribly. We know what our game plan is because we are not going to be in the advocacy business. We are going to be in the ‘Here’s what the report says, here’s what it means, here’s how it works, what are your questions?’ business. We will let other people take up the mantle and try to advocate for action.”

Moore said he believes the first step, the process of sharing study findings, will take several weeks alone.

“We have this complex monster of school finance and we have these recommendations on how to build a formula to meet the needs of every student in the funding formula,” he said. “That is what we asked the researchers to do: Tell us the cost to get every student to the state standard no matter where they live and no matter what their needs are.”

Next, the collaborative must determine how to build a formula, Moore said, apply it to district and school demographics and characteristics, and decide how much additional funding needs to be distributed to every district and charter school in the state. That work is just getting underway.

For that reason, the study is not ready for a political path to implementation, said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“Right now, we’ve just received this study and we’re going through it deeply to determine exactly what it says, and we need everyone to learn more about the report,” Wigent said. “We not at the point where we have any kind of solid legislative recommendations, but that should take months rather than years.”

After the next round of elections, the report’s backers hope, Republican lawmakers who are currently vying to convince voters that they won’t raise taxes might be more inclined to consider costly changes to the funding system. But Austin said he isn’t optimistic.

“These legislators are talking about tax cuts versus actually doing what every study has said: We need to invest more,” said Austin. “Their philosophy is totally antithetical to what we actually need to do.”

What’s clear, according to Crim, is that politics need to be pushed aside for the state’s education funding system reform to move forward.

“If we just looked at doing what’s right and looking at these three studies — that have been produced all within the span of the last year or so — time after time showing we need to fund public schools,” he said. “Unless something changes drastically, my fear is this new study will go the way of the previous studies and won’t affect policy.”

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”