Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

July 21, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Education system in crisis

LANSING — Mike Flanagan, Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, has spent his life in public education.

Now, he’s presiding over a system in severe crisis. This month Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill giving the state the power to dissolve two small, economically troubled districts: Buena Vista, near Saginaw, and Inkster, in the Detroit area.

They may be the first to go -- but unless something changes, they almost certainly won’t be the last. Today, a record number of districts are running deficits, including some of the state’s largest, such as Flint, Pontiac and Detroit.

Flanagan, the state’s top education official since 2005, believes he understands the landscape of Michigan’s public schools.

Now, he’s taking the unusual step of offering two ideas to save traditional public education in Michigan. First, the more radical one: If it were up to him, he told a joint legislative subcommittee, “I would change over to county-wide school districts.”

That would be a vast change. Currently, Michigan has 549 local school districts and 56 intermediate school districts, or ISDs, (not counting perhaps 250 independent charter schools.) Replacing that structure with 83 county-wide districts would be deeply unsettling to some, especially perhaps all the school superintendents that would no longer be superintendents.

Yet Flanagan thinks it would work far better than what exists now. “Countywide districts work in other states,” such as Florida, he noted in a letter to education subcommittee chairs in both the Michigan House and Senate.

“From my experience, as both a local and intermediate school superintendent, I believe it makes sense,” he told them. He said it would not only help save hundreds of millions by streamlining administrative functions; it would help cushion the effects of enrollment fluctuations.

Finally, “it would provide a more equitable education for all students.” But Flanagan knows there are “many forces that would be supporting and defending the status quo.” So, he is urging the lawmakers to mandate a “hybrid system.“ That would leave most or all local districts intact -- but “centralize administrative and some academic functions at the county or regional level.”

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