TRAVERSE CITY — Roughly 100 people attended a forum at Benzie Central High School to learn more about proposed changes to Michigan’s education system that could soon be before state lawmakers.
Topics at Monday night’s forum included a proposed law that would allow an almost unlimited expansion in the number of non-traditional and charter schools that receive public funding, including online and for-profit schools.
The forum also explored a plan commissioned by Gov. Rick Snyder, called the Oxford Report, that suggests state funding should go directly to students, not districts, allowing students to take courses from any public institution through online classes or by traveling between different schools.
Tom Stobie, superintendent of Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools, said the two measures — when considered together — pose a real threat to local districts.
He used a per-pupil foundational allowance of $7,000 to illustrate his point. If a student chooses to take an online course through a charter school for one hour of a seven-hour school day, the charter school would receive $1,000 of foundational allowance funding.
“They are draining that part of the foundational allowance away from a traditional school’s ability to maintain lab classes and extracurricular activities, and band,” Stobie said.
Stobie joined John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education; Mike Hill, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District superintendent; Lindsey Smith, a West Michigan Public Radio reporter; and Benzie County Central Schools Superintendent Dave Misinski on the forum panel.
The Benzie Unit of the League of Women Voters sponsored the event.
The state Board of Education plans to facilitate more forums like the one in Benzie across the state in the coming months to help people understand the complex education issues on the table in Lansing, Austin said.
“These are big changes,” Austin said. “They have real repercussions for our public school system and we want to encourage a full public discussion.”
Austin offered two recommendations to improve the proposals. First, the state should create incentives for full-service local schools if funding becomes tied to students instead of districts. Second, the state needs to create quality controls for non-traditional forms of education if their unlimited expansion is allowed.
Marcia Curran, a member of the League of Women Voters, also worried about a lack of quality and accountability at non-traditional schools.
“These private companies that are for-profit and running charter schools, they don’t really have to tell you how they spend taxpayer money,” Curran said.
Other panelists and community members feared the proposed changes detract from the sense of community associated with local districts.
Dave Johnson, a retired teacher who lives in Honor, said school districts are the center of many communities, especially in rural areas.
The Benzie forum is an example of how people play a direct role in their communities through schools, he said.
“(The forum), to me, shouted responsibility, and community and a love of schools,” he said. “I don’t want to see that lost.”