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.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”