Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Tuesday

November 20, 2012

Panel suggests more education choices

DETROIT (AP) — Public school students in Michigan would be able to attend state-funded classes in any other district and even online under a proposal commissioned by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Proponents say the recommendation, which the Oxford Foundation-Michigan posted Monday on its website, would overhaul public education by offering more learning choices. But detractors say it will speed up the flight of students from already struggling urban school districts.

The foundation suggests passage of the Michigan Public Education Finance Act, which would allow per-pupil funding to follow students to any district willing to accept them. Detroit Federation of Teachers union president Keith Johnson called the proposal an "overreach."

"Most school districts like Detroit cannot afford to lose such funding," Johnson said Monday. "In communities that historically have had very strong and effective school leadership and very productive schools you aren't going to find too many parents trying to take advantage of this."

The Detroit district has lost tens of millions of dollars in per-pupil funding as enrollment has plummeted by nearly 100,000 students over the past 10 years. The district also routinely scores at or near the bottom in state standardized testing.

"It seems to me that this is the target audience — those areas that are either financially strapped or students are not performing," Johnson said. "Let's simply kill them off by giving parents another option."

Currently, Michigan students only can attend schools of choice in adjacent districts. The 302-page draft proposal would take away the boundary restrictions for districts willing to accept outside students.

Under current state law, 90 percent of general education funds are based on October classroom attendance.

"We've had an enrollment-based funding mechanism since 1994," said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the free-market think tank Mackinac Center. "This is taking it to another level ... a student can enroll part-time in one district and take another course from a district miles away. The money follows the student."

If enacted, the plan would create something of a public education marketplace for students and their parents, Van Beek said.

"It's not a voucher system. The money does not flow to private schools or independent schools," he said.

An online learning option would allow districts offering Web-based courses to receive student funding from the state.

Conceivably, students in the Detroit area could take online courses offered by a public district in northern Michigan. That district would get a percentage of per-pupil funding that had been going to the home district.

But allowing K-12 students to take such online courses would take the "human element" out of teaching, Johnson said.

"One of the things about being a teacher in the classroom is there is a lot of spontaneity in determining whether a student has mastery of a concept," Johnson added. "You can't do that online. What assurance do you have that the student is actually doing the work? Where is the feedback?"

Under the proposal, students also could get up to $10,000 in scholarship money for graduating early from high school at a rate of $2,500 per semester, and districts would be encouraged to offer year-round schooling by spreading the 180-day school year over 12 months.

The changes could take five years to implement and would result in shifts in education money but wouldn't require additional funds.

Snyder asked the Oxford Foundation to come up with a new funding model to the School Aid Act of 1979. The governor plans to present the proposal in his February budget message. The plan still has to be reviewed by Snyder and eventually approved by state legislators.

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