Shared time

In Betsy DeVos’ home state, a program that steers public dollars to private school students is under fire from the governor

A young boy resting his head on his arms as he sits in a classroom looking bored (Getty Images)

Roughly once a week for much of the school year, 14 children have been gathering at the Spring Creek Equestrian Center in the western Michigan town of Three Oaks to learn about caring for horses.

“They clean the stalls, groom them, feed them … they learn the mechanics of the horse, how you care for them,” said stable owner Alison Grosse. “It’s not just a fun activity. It’s a whole experience.”

And the best part? Aside from a $40 riding fee that families contribute, the program is completely free for participants, paid by the state of Michigan through a program called “shared time” that allows private school and homeschool students to take free classes through their local school district.

In a state where vouchers are illegal because the state Constitution bans the use of public dollars for private schools, Michigan lawmakers — including some who are closely allied with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — have taken steps in recent years to dramatically expand the shared time program as a legal way to use public dollars to serve students in non-public schools.

The result is a program that has nearly tripled in size in the last seven years, with state costs ballooning from $48 million in 2011 to more than $133 million this school year.

PHOTO: From Facebook
Children work with a horse at the Spring Creek Equestrian Center — one of many places across the state where homeschool and private school students can take courses paid for by the state of Michigan through the “shared time” program.

The program has gotten so big — and has claimed such a sizable chunk of the state’s education budget — that Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who had been supportive of the program in the past, now says it’s gotten out of hand.

He questions the courses some districts are offering — including one that takes students on a state-funded wilderness adventure, and another that teaches students to play Minecraft. And he’s raised concerns about a growing number of districts that now offer so many shared time courses that they’ve essentially added thousands of students to their rosters and are raking in far more funding than districts of a similar size.

Some Michigan districts are getting paid 20 or 30 percent more from the state than they would without shared time, state data show. One charter school that offers shared time programs has essentially doubled its share of state education dollars. (Scroll down for a list of districts that are heavily relying on shared time).

National education experts say the arrangement — which currently serves more than 100,000 private school and homeschool students across the state — is highly unusual. Most states either embrace the use of private school vouchers that let families use taxpayer funds to cover private tuition, or generally keep public and private schools separate, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, which tracks education policy across the country. “In my experience, most school districts have clear delineation between public and private.”

Snyder is not opposed to the shared time program itself but says that it’s gone beyond its original intent.

“This program diverts resources from core instruction that improves student outcomes,” Snyder asserted in the proposed budget he released in February.

Snyder’s budget proposal, which is now being negotiated with the legislature, would put restrictions on the number of shared time classes a district could offer, prohibiting districts from collecting state funds for shared time that go above 5 percent of what they’re receiving for their public school students. Snyder also wants to end shared time classes for kindergarteners.

Snyder says those reforms would generate an estimated $68 million that he wants to distribute to schools around the state. The cuts to shared time are part of how he proposes to raise the per pupil funding schools receive next year by $240 per student.

The proposed cuts have faced sharp opposition from lawmakers who support giving parents options other than their local public school. Some of those lawmakers are allies of DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has long led the fight for vouchers in her home state.

“I don’t plan to go along with [cuts to shared time],” said Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican who leads the House education committee that expects to take up the budget when it returns from spring recess later this month. “This is a public school working for more families. It’s a way to bring in formerly homeschooled kids on their terms. It is, plain and simple, a taxpayer getting a benefit from a public entity. Who is getting hurt?”

Kelly said he has a plan to raise per pupil funding by the same $240 per student that Snyder has proposed without cutting shared time, though he declined to say what he would cut instead.

The state Senate is more open to putting some restrictions on shared time. A budget bill that passed out of the Senate education committee last month would end shared time for kindergarten and impose some new quality controls on the program, but the Senate has no plans to significantly curtail shared time, said Sen. Phil Pavlov, the Republican chair of the Senate education committee.

“We want to make sure that it’s quality programming,” he said, but added: “Shared time has been probably one of the most successful programs we’ve been able to come up with. It really exemplifies choice and opportunity for students to non-core learning opportunities and local traditional school districts benefit from it … I don’t think we should be putting limits on it.”

PHOTO: State of Michigan
As Michigan lawmakers moved to expand the state’s “shared time” program, which gives public schools money to provide non-core classes to private school and homeschool students, the costs to the state have grown.

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The shared time program began decades ago as a way for private school or homeschooled students to take non-core classes including gym, art, or music from their local public school.

Over the years, the program has evolved so that districts now bring the programs to private schools. Most shared time teachers today are public school employees who work inside private schools, teaching private school students in private school classrooms.

Some, like Grosse, who runs the equestrian program through the Berrien Springs district in western Michigan, are teaching courses created for homeschooled schools. Some districts are offering virtual shared time classes that allow students to learn a number of subjects — from computers to agriculture to dance — without leaving their homes.

Michigan courts have found the arrangement to be legal because it doesn’t involve the direct spending of public dollars in private schools. Rather, public schools hire instructors, then receive funding from the state based on the number of hours students are in shared time classes. As those hours add up to the equivalent of full time students, the district gets the same per pupil funding — about $7,700 per student, on average — for shared time students as it does for traditional students. (Districts in Michigan get different amounts per student based on historical funding levels).

The arrangement works well for the school districts that sponsor these programs.

“Rather than cut band, orchestra, choir, academics or cut counselors, shared time was a way to say, ‘look, we can create partnerships with some of these other schools, and that will help the kids in our district,’” said Dennis McDavid, the superintendent of Berkley schools.

The small affluent district in the northern Detroit suburbs currently offers so many classes in private schools, offering potentially dozens of courses, that student class hours this year added up to the equivalent of nearly 1,500 full time students.

That means that Berkley, a 4,300-student district that gets $8,123 per student from the state, takes in an extra $12 million a year from the state through shared time. That’s a lot of money for a district whose budget McDavid put at around $55 million.

To be sure, the district has expenses related to shared time. It has to recruit, train, and supervise teachers at about 40 different private schools, but those contracted teachers are paid less than the unionized teachers who teach in Berkley schools. McDavid said the district gets to keep about 35 to 40 cents on the dollar that it brings in from the program.

Shared time works well for private schools, which can offer a range of extra classes to their students without having to raise tuition.

“The benefits have been wonderful,” said Fayzeh Madani, the principal of the Michigan Islamic Academy in Ann Arbor, which has used Berkley teachers in recent years to offer gym, computing and art.

“They’re providing us with instructors for some of the courses that we would maybe not have if it weren’t for shared time,” Madani said, adding that her school serves many low-income families who would not be able to pay much more in tuition.

And it works well for homeschoolers who can take advantage of free programs that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.

Those are some of the arguments that have led to the recent legislative changes that have encouraged the growth of the program.

Originally, districts were only allowed to provide shared time services to students at private schools within their district boundaries. But in recent years the law has been amended several times. First, lawmakers made it possible for districts to serve private schools in neighboring districts. Then they made it possible for districts to serve schools throughout their county. Then they allowed districts to offer services to schools in neighboring counties.

Last year, the law was amended yet again to allow kindergarten students to participate.

That’s why Berkley kept investing in shared time, McDavid said. “All the signals from Lansing were, ‘This is great. Keep it up.’ because they kept expanding the availability of partners.”

Snyder himself has signed off on expansions of the program, McDavid said.

“It’s puzzling and sort of surprising to a lot of us that this governor, who was in favor of it and had a hand in expanding it, is now making a pretty draconian shift away from expansion. It looks to me like he’s trying to kill it.”

Snyder says he’s not trying to kill shared time, just rein it in. He notes that only 24 districts in a state with more than 500 districts and 300 charter schools are currently exceeding the 5 percent cap that he wants to impose. He argues that kindergarten shouldn’t be included in shared time because it’s harder to determine what constitutes “core curriculum” in a classroom where art and music are an integral part of instruction. Kindergarten is also not required in Michigan.

But for those 24 districts, the changes would be painful.

“It would hurt us tremendously,” McDavid said.

Other districts that would be deeply affected include Brighton Area schools, which gets a 34 percent boost from shared time. The Madison Academy charter school in Flint gets a 101.2 percent boost, offering shared time services to the equivalent of 414 students while running a school for 408 students.  

Snyder’s budget director, John Walsh, said he is sympathetic to the plight of districts like Berkley that have come to rely on shared time funding, but he says the program needs an overhaul.

“While these offerings are certainly educational, our position is that much of the programming has evolved too far away from the original intent and vision,” Walsh said in a statement. “I believe that our recommendation is based on the right thinking to ensure that our educational dollars are spent in the most effective manner possible to support the goal of improving student outcomes.”

In addition to putting limits on the number of shared time students a district can serve, Snyder’s budget would require districts to provide details to the state about the courses they’re offering.

Craig Thiel, the research director at the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council, which has been ringing alarms about the shared time expansion, says additional oversight could help the state better define what constitutes “core” courses.

Currently, he said, some districts are offering Advanced Placement classes through shared time that are technically non-core because they’re electives. But AP English, AP History and other similar classes can be used by high school students to fulfill core graduation requirements.

Other districts, he said, might not be complying with rules that require districts only to offer shared time courses that are also available to their own students. The horseback riding class in Spring Creek, for example, takes place during the school day, making it difficult for traditional students to attend.

“A lot of the growth has occurred because of very little direction by the Department of Education,” Thiel said. “They knew it was controversial and just punted on this,” allowing the county school districts that support local districts to decide “whether or not shared time programs meet the letter of the law.”

William DiSessa, a spokesman for the state education department, said the state conducts quality control reviews to make sure districts are complying with state law. But, he said, districts have the right to decide what classes they want to offer.

“Locals are the experts on their student body and the programs they elect to offer,” DiSessa said in a statement. “This level of autonomy also allows for innovation and novelty in the types of educational services offered.”

Thiel, however, says the fact that so many districts have turned to shared time as a way to balance their budget speaks to larger problems with the way schools in Michigan are funded.

“That’s a signal that our school funding system is broken,” he said.

These are the districts that are benefiting the most from the shared time program:

Source: State of Michigan

In memorium

Michigan school Superintendent Brian Whiston, who helped keep threatened schools open, dies at 56

PHOTO: Youtube

The state education department is reporting this morning that state Superintendent Brian Whiston has died of cancer at 56 years old.

Whiston, who led the state education department for three years, is best known as the architect of the partnership agreements that last year prevented the closure of 38 struggling Michigan schools.

Those schools — including 25 in the city of Detroit — had been targeted for closure by a state law requiring the shuttering of any school that had been in the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row. Parents were notified by a state agency called the School Reform Office that their children’s schools were in danger of closing. 

Whiston at the time had no control over the School Reform Office, which reported to Gov. Rick Snyder, but it was Whiston who gave Snyder an alternative to closing schools.

Instead of forcing thousands of children across the state to scramble for new schools that likely would not have been much different from the schools they were leaving, Whiston proposed that the schools enter into “partnership agreements” designed to keep them open.

With Snyder’s blessing, the schools signed agreements that required them to work with partners such as local universities and community groups to improve instruction. If the schools are unable to meet improvement targets over three years, they could be subject to consequences like closure.

Snyder then returned the School Reform Office to the control of the state Education Department.

Since then, dozens of other schools have also signed partnership agreements, and Whiston has been an advocate for school improvement, rather than punishing schools for poor performance.

Among people who have sent condolences since news of Whiston’s death emerged this morning is U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Snyder also issued a statement saying:

“It is with a heavy heart that I learned the news of the passing of State Superintendent Brian Whiston. Brian’s dedication and work on behalf of all Michigan students and teachers was exemplary. He was an outstanding partner who understood that, just as teachers work every day to challenge their students to do better, we all need to challenge ourselves to do better for students. The partnerships to help struggling districts, his work to help implement the Marshall Plan for Talent, his Top 10 in 10 program, and many other initiatives he undertook during his career will be part of Brian’s longstanding efforts to make Michigan a national leader in education. I will miss working with him greatly.”

For more about Whiston, who previously served as superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools, here’s the press release the Education Department issued this morning:

State of struggle

On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class

PHOTO: Getty images

Michigan schools continue to flounder in the bottom third of the nation.

Scores released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card,” indicate Michigan schools have made little progress in recent years despite years of sounding alarms by state, business and education leaders.

According to NAEP results — from tests given to a sample of students in every state in 2017 — Michigan ranks 35th in fourth-grade reading skills. That’s up from 41st in 2015, but still notably lower than the 28th the state was ranked in 2003, the first year Michigan participated in the test.

Michigan also saw a small improvement in state rankings in fourth-grade math (38th, from 42nd), eighth-grade math (33rd, from 34th) and eighth-grade reading (30th, from 31st).

But beneath those rankings, there is little to celebrate. Consider:

  • Michigan’s rank in fourth-grade reading went up six spots. But that’s mainly because other states’ scores dropped. The average score Michigan students earned on that test was higher as recently as 2011.
  • In fourth-grade math, Michigan students score average was the lowest in the state’s history of taking the test, back to 2003.
  • Eighth-grade math scores have remained virtually unchanged for 14 years.
  • Low-income fourth-graders rank 49th in math, compared to poor students in other states; white students are 46th in fourth-grade reading compared to white students elsewhere.
  • We rank last in the Midwest in every category.

While the test indicates that Michigan may have arrested its more than decade-long educational slide, it also enumerates just how far the state is from becoming a top 10 state in education, the goal set by the Michigan Department of Education to be reached by 2026.

Why NAEP scores matter

State-level tests, such as Michigan’s M-STEP, offer comparisons of schools within state borders, but say nothing about how Michigan students fare against their peers in other states.

That’s where the NAEP comes in. The biennial NAEP test results gives education leaders, politicians and families of school children state-to-state comparisons of education systems. Without NAEP, Michigan would have difficulty determining if its schools are doing great or horribly.

The test is administered to about 300,000 students in public and private schools nationally, along with 27 urban districts including Detroit.

“The Nation’s Report Card provides us with the very best data we have to understand how our students stack up against those in other states,” said Michelle Richard, an education researcher and vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy firm.

Those results have not been kind to Michigan. “Over the past decade, Michigan’s NAEP results have been stunning,” Richard said.  “Nearly everyone else is doing better than we are. Why? What are they doing that we’re not?”

Here’s how Michigan reading scores compare to the national average.

Focus on leading states

“Any improvement is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, who examined the NAEP results for Bridge. “The fact we’re doing better than we were is good.

But Moje urged policymakers to be cautious about celebrating a slight improvement in state rankings, and instead look at what can be learned from leading states.

Massachusetts leads the nation in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades. Massachusetts fourth-graders scored about 1.5 grade levels higher in reading than the average fourth-grader in Michigan (a 10-point NAEP scoring gap is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning).

RELATED: You can see sample math questions here and reading questions here.

Massachusetts education leaders “do some pretty amazing things,” Moje said. “They’re investing in education. It’s a systems approach, not individual districts” figuring out what to do.

“Instead of using (NAEP) scores to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing better (than we were), we should be saying, ‘Who do we want to be like, and what are they doing to get there, because they’re not that different from us,’” Moje said.

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State University, said Michigan’s scores are basically flat. “You don’t want to improve your rank because a few other states are doing worse,” Lenhoff said. “That’s not improvement.

“The rank is a useful guidepost,” Lenhoff said, “but when we’re actually talking about the kind of learning we want our students to experience, the kinds of skills we want them to have when they move on to college and the workforce, the rank is less useful than looking at the average scores and thinking about how little progress we’ve made in changing the trajectory of student success.”

Lenhoff said she is particularly distressed by achievement gaps between white and African-American students. In fourth-grade math, Michigan’s  African-American students are the equivalent of three grade levels behind whites. Poverty doesn’t account for all of that gap – the divide between poor and non-poor fourth-graders is about half as wide as the divide between African-Americans and whites.

“That’s completely unacceptable that we have a group of students not learning,” Lenhoff said.

Test scores are stubbornly aligned with family income. The gap between test scores earned by those qualifiying for free or reduced lunch and those who do not has remained steady, both in Michigan and most states.

At least a dozen reports have been published in recent years focusing on how to improve Michigan schools.

“The fact we haven’t improved is concerning,” Lenhoff said of the latest NAEP scores. “We need a major reform in investment to make us happy and proud in 10 years.”

The Michigan Department of Education released a statement on the NAEP results, noting that while Michigan’s scores “have ticked-up slightly and we’ve gone up in the state rankings, we know there is a lot more work to do.

“These tests were given in 2017 when we were one year into our efforts to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years. Michigan is not yet where it needs to be. There is a Top 10 in 10 plan, we need to stick with it, and give our students and educators the opportunity to keep improving.”

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover the nation’s report card on schools. This story on Michigan scores came courtesy of Bridge. Click here to see Chalkbeat’s report on Detroit scores.