Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 21, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Education system in crisis

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
Columnist

---- — 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.”

That would include transportation, food service, accounting and technology, plus staff training and development, curriculum development, and educator evaluation systems. He plans to formally present this to the subcommittees when they meet again July 31. What’s not known is how they -- or the education community -- will react.

This hasn’t exactly been a year of legislative accomplishment. So far this year, despite pleading from the governor, the lawmakers have been unwilling to act on the governor’s major initiatives.

Flanagan thinks this might be different, however, because some of these reforms represent potential cost savings.

That, however, is precisely what worries some. Scott Warrow is head of the Birmingham Education Association, the teachers’ union in one of suburban Detroit’s largest (8,000 student) affluent districts.

“This is really about privatization of the public schools, and spending less on them,” said Warrow, a longtime high school teacher who has been head of the union three years. “This governor and legislature have been at war against teachers and especially their unions,” he said, a view widely shared by teachers since lawmakers outlawed deducting union dues from their paychecks, and then passed right to work.

Flanagan, however, who was first appointed by a Democratic governor, says that isn’t his view. “If it were up to me I would have a sales tax on services that would be devoted to education,” he said, saying he thought it was ridiculous that the state collects tax on a coat bought for a child but not on a golf game.

The superintendent believes his proposal will actually help local schools, both academically and financially, by freeing them to not having to duplicate non-educational services.

Fred Proctor was principal at Birmingham Groves High School, where Warrow teaches, for a dozen years before taking early retirement in June. He believes some of what the superintendent is proposing makes sense.

“Birmingham was one of the first to privatize food service, janitorial service, and then transportation. Everybody said that would never work. But the school has never been cleaner,” and the bus and food service has also been better than it was.

Even the union’s Warrow acknowledged that centralizing transportation and janitorial services made sense.

But Proctor is very wary of anything that would take away the highly-ranked Birmingham system’s educational autonomy.

Noting the superintendent’s comment about “providing a more equitable education for all students,” he asked, “are we talking about leveling up or leveling down?”

What is clear is that the present system isn’t working. A record number of the state’s local school districts are spending more than they are taking in, something they aren‘t legally supposed to do. The 6,000-student Pontiac district has only able to avoid closing because of cash advances -- now stopped -- from Oakland County’s intermediate district. In many urban areas, public schools have had their funding depleted by students leaving for charter schools.

Since 1994, the schools have been mainly funded by a per-pupil grant from the state. “Everybody knows if we were starting from scratch to design a statewide school system, we never would have done it this way,” Flanagan said. However, as he noted, this is what Michigan now has.

What remains to be seen is what the state will do to fix it.