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

Falling

Michigan is failing its students, as state test scores keep tanking

PHOTO: Ian Lishman/Getty Images

Michigan schools seem to be getting even worse.

That’s the unavoidable, sobering summary from Wednesday’s release of the state’s latest standardized test scores, given to public school students in grades 3-8 and 11th grade.

Despite years of education reform, millions of dollars in targeted spending, closures of underperforming schools and the impending threat of flunking third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading, scores on the M-STEP sank even lower this past school year in most grades and test subjects.

And trend lines are going in the wrong direction. More third-graders were poor readers in the 2017-18 school year than in 2016-17 — marking the fourth consecutive year that the share of poor readers in Michigan third-grade classrooms has grown.

While slightly more third graders were rated proficient this past year (44.4 percent, up from 44.1 percent) in tests that measure reading and writing, there was an even greater increase in the percent who showed no (as opposed to partial) proficiency.

Across all 15 tests in math, English and social studies (across seven grade levels), overall proficiency rates were down on 11 of those tests — while the percent rated “not proficient” rose in 12 of the 15.

(Scroll down to see how your school did or compare the scores of as many as six schools. To read a story about statewide scores, click here).

Growing chorus for change

“It’s always risky to read too much into a one-year reading” of state test scores, said Jeff Guilfoyle, vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based consulting and research firm. “That said, the numbers are not good. An alarming number of our kids are rated non-proficient in math and reading and the number is growing. Addressing this needs to be a top priority for policymakers.”

Education was already a major issue in the state’s gubernatorial election, with Michigan’s students mired in the bottom third of the nation in academic performance. But the release of Wednesday’s M-STEP scores could increase public pressure to seek a dramatically different approach to improving the state’s schools.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Bill Schuette has made improving early reading a priority in his campaign, calling for reading “coaches” in every school. His campaign called the latest test scores “a tragedy for students and an embarrassing deterrent to economic growth.”  

“It is a tragedy that we have some of the lowest reading scores in America,” Schuette told Bridge through campaign spokesman John Sellek in an email. “Where ever you live, we should all be outraged.”

Schuette vows that, if elected, he would appoint a state literacy director and would promote a reading foundation to which philanthropic foundations and businesses can contribute to programs such as hiring more reading coaches, creating summer reading camps. Schuette also has said he will bring more focus to career-technical education.

“We need to hold schools accountable for student outcomes, but at the same time give them more freedom and flexibility to decide the best way to achieve those outcomes, rather than constantly imposing burdensome, one-size-fits-all mandates and requirements from Lansing,” Schuette said. “As governor, I’ll work with parents, schools and other stakeholders to create a simple, fair rating system that provides useful data and drives school improvement.

Schuette also agreed with some critics, including many Republicans, who complain that the current state education system “scatters responsibility for education over a number of public entities, rather than investing it primarily in any one body or person.” Changing that dynamic might include “letting the Governor, rather than the Board of Education, appoint the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.” Such a change would require a state Constitutional amendment.

Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer told Bridge that her education plan would address declining student achievement by fighting for universal preschool, shoring up literacy programs as well as adding “counselors, social workers, school nurses, school security, healthy meals and safe transportation.”

Whitmer has said she would pay for it all by “eliminating the $100-plus million in School Aid Fund money being spent out of the state budget on a variety of legislators’ pet projects and ending raids on the School Aid Funds once and for all,” she wrote in an email to Bridge.

“By doing this, we will infuse three-quarters of a billion dollars into our public education system. We’re also going to maximize the state’s federal drawdown for childcare. My plan will more than pay for itself.”

Questions about test’s value

M-STEP —  Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress —  is Michigan’s annual assessment of students, which is required under federal education law. It measures English language arts, math, social studies and science knowledge in grades 3-8 and 11.  (The state adopted new science tests this year and results were not released because the Michigan Department of Education said the tests themselves were being tested.)

Some education advocates are taking a cautious attitude toward the 2018 results because of substantial changes adopted by the state. The tests were made shorter and included fewer sections than in prior years — a move that angered some.

State education officials said they cut the length of the annual test in order to free up time for more targeted and frequent “benchmark” tests at the school level that teachers could use to address student weaknesses.

But those changes also raise questions about comparability of the 2017-2018 results with previous years, said Amber Arellano, executive director The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan policy, research and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak.

“Uncertainty about this data hinders educational improvement efforts across the state,” Arellano said.

EdTrust noted that many of the yawning gaps in achievement between white students and black and Hispanic students persist in the data. Those gaps narrowed slightly in 2017-2018, but more often because the  proficiency rates of white students fell faster than those of minority students, and not because minority student scores were improving.

For instance, in fifth grade, the percent of black students in the state proficient in English language arts fell from 24.8 to 20.7 percent over the past school year.  For Hispanic students, proficiency dropped from 39.4 to 36 percent. But among white students, the numbers fell even farther, from 58.6 to 53.8 percent.

“Huge gaps in learning outcomes are holding back Michigan’s economic vitality, and require policy leaders to not only invest ‒ but to invest more strategically ‒ in dramatically raising literacy levels through new, thoughtful systemic approaches,” Arellano said in a statement.

Large gaps also exist between poor students and those who aren’t. For instance, just 30.3 percent of all students in poverty were proficient in English language arts, less than half of the proficiency rate (62 percent) of students who aren’t poor. In math the gap was 54 percent to 22 percent. The gaps were similar in previous years.

Unlike the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) which is given to students across the country, M-STEP tests are taken by all Michigan students and cannot easily be compared with scores of students outside Michigan.

The NAEP is a biannual test that is only taken by a sampling of students in grades 4 and 8 in every state and, like the state test, has steadily chronicled Michigan’s steady decline. Michigan has seen its NAEP rankings fall precipitously in the last two decades as scores have stagnated and fallen.

Pockets of success –  and struggles

Proficiency rates in Detroit, the state’s largest district, were up on a few tests, including third and fourth grade reading. But overall, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students were proficient on eight of the 15 tests. The city has one of the poorest populations in the country and poverty has been linked to poor academic performance.

M-STEP scores were worse in Flint, where fewer than 8 percent of all students were proficient in English language arts and fewer than 5 percent in math. Nearly 80 percent of Flint students showed no level of proficiency in math and ELA. Like Detroit, Flint, which has been plagued by years of torment over lead-poisoned water, also has one of the poorest student populations.

Indeed, students from wealthier districts scored far better. More than 75 percent of all students in Novi, Northville and East Grand Rapids were proficient in English language arts, well above the 43.9 percent statewide.

Test scores rose in some districts, such as Traverse City or in Dundee just south of Ann Arbor. But declined in many other districts as well.

“We know we have pockets of success,” said Susan Townsend, of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, who participated in a round-table discussion hosted Monday by the state to talk about early literacy efforts. “But we need that across the state.”

Her goal is similar to Schuette’s — putting reading coaches into 2,000 schools statewide. “If we could have a coach in every building, that would be the dream.”

How many third-graders will repeat?

The stakes will rise considerably a year from now, following next spring’s M-STEP test, when Michigan third-graders who are more than one grade behind in reading skills on the M-STEP will face the possibility of being held back in 2019-20 under a law passed in 2016.

The education department hasn’t finalized how it will determine who will be held back, but it is safe to assume those children will be drawn from the group who are in the bottom category of M-STEP scores, labeled “not proficient” in English language arts –  and that group of students has increased markedly in the last four years.

In 2014-2015, 24 percent of third graders were judged “not proficient” in English language arts. That percentage has steadily risen and was at 31 percent in 2018. That 31 percent represents nearly 37,000 Michigan students, roughly a third of all students on last spring’s test. If the rate had stayed steady at 24 percent, more than 7,000 fewer third graders would have been “not proficient.”

That increase in children rated “not proficient” in English language arts – reading is a subset of the ELA score – is even more disturbing, because the state has spent $80 million to improve early learning to avoid holding tens of thousands third-graders back.

Where that leaves state policymakers isn’t exactly clear. But Guilfoyle, of PSC, suggests the state needs to step in to help vulnerable students at an even younger age to make a difference.

“We need to focus on early investment and make sure kids are arriving at kindergarten on track,” he told Bridge. “Then  we need to do whatever it takes to keep them on track as they move through the K-12 system.”

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover state test scores. This story on state scores was from Bridge. Click here to see Chalkbeat’s report on how schools performed in Detroit, particularly schools that were targeted for closure last year. For a breakdown of the scores by subject, demographic group, and grade level, see the database posted by Bridge.

Or, scroll down for our database, which allows users to compare overall math and English scores at up to six schools or districts in Michigan by typing in their names. 

And then there were two

Michigan’s governor’s race will be Whitmer vs. Schuette. Here’s where they stand on education

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will face Republican Bill Schuette on November 6 in the race to become Michigan's next governor.

Former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Bill Schuette will face off in November in the race to become Michigan’s next governor.

The Associated Press called both races before 10 p.m. Tuesday as Whitmer coasted past two opponents in the Democratic primary and Schuette easily topped the four-candidate Republican field. 

The winner of the general election on November 6 will likely have an enormous impact on education across the state in coming years.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could preside over school closings. He or she could influence how schools are funded and measured, and could make crucial decisions about whether to expand preschool or address the rising costs of higher education.

Before the primary, Chalkbeat joined with a team of reporters from the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to interview six of the seven major-party candidates on a range of topics. We published their answers to key education questions, along with videos of the candidates’ education responses.

Schuette declined to participate in those interviews but later sent written answers to the questions. Unlike other candidates, his answers were not subjected to follow up questions.

Scroll down to read Whitmer and Schutte’s responses, edited for clarity and length. A full transcript of Whitmer’s answers to all of the questions in the hourlong interview is here.