Parsing Snyder’s Education Policy

Snyder sotsIn his 2015 State of the State Address, Gov. Snyder focused heavily on education policy. What did he say, and how does it square-up with the harsh realties found in Michigan’s classrooms?

Detroit Public Schools

Education has been a sticky wicket for the governor during his first term, with a number of gaffes and failures in his column. Secretive Skunkworks and spurious funding claims aside, the governor is finally (at least partially) willing to own the rolling cavalcade of failed policy decisions miring Detroit Public Schools. Citing the un-ending cycle of emergency management, the state-run Education Achievement Authority, and the explosion of under-regulated charter schools, Snyder made the concession that “It’s an environment that’s not creating success for our students.” Albeit, a gross understatement, but admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Without providing any details, the governor called for higher standards across the entire Detroit educational landscape — a long overdue declaration that earned a spontaneous standing ovation on both sides of the aisle.

Privatization

It wouldn’t be a GOP State of the State address without trotting out the privatization stalking horse. True to form, Gov. Snyder wants to promote more Public-Private Partnerships in Michigan’s educational system. Known as “P-3s“, they are pitched as a means to raise public capital, but they really amount to selling the seed corn. In the Public Interest describes them thus:

[C]ompanies pay the governmental entity to build or operate an asset in exchange for the right to collect user fees and other revenue streams associated with the asset.  P3’s can be used to shift control of an existing asset like a government building, parking lots or roads.  They are also used to generate investment capital to build new infrastructure needed when public agencies are unable to raise sufficient public debt. Sales of existing assets allow a governmental entity to raise a large amount of funds for today’s needs.  Because of this quick cash infusion, some cities and states are considering selling valuable assets to help fill in budget gaps.  In both cases there are several serious risks if the deal fails to include public interest and taxpayer protections.

P-3 pitfalls include: selling public assets on the cheap; handing-over too much control; long-term contracts with unfavorable terms; not functioning in the public interest; increases in fees — factors that all too often turn these agreements into parasitic rather than mutually beneficial relationships.

Reading Proficiency by 3rd Grade

Like many governors, Snyder has latched-on to the importance of a key indicator of future academic success — the ability to read at grade-level by the third-grade. While Michigan has made some strides on this, moving from 63 percent to 70 percent proficiency in recent years, the governor wants to see much more.

But, is that a realistic goal, and is third-grade reading proficiency the best bellwether to guide education policy?

Education Week reported on a 2011 study from the American Education Research Association which found that students who can’t read by the third-grade are four times less likely to graduate on time. Yet, they asserted that is a weak correlation compared to the poverty factor, which makes students 13 times less likely to succeed. Poverty is linked to a 25 percent drop-out rate, compared to only 2 percent among more affluent students. It seems focusing on efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty would be the wisest course of action.

Other than benchmarking third-grade reading levels, Snyder did not hint at any policy specifics. It remains important that he keeps the legislature in check — something the governor has demonstrated an increasing willingness to do. Lawmakers, far too often, implement large over-arching policy positions that fail to recognize the needs of teachers who are trying to help individual students under unique circumstances.

One of the nationally trending education policies is retention of low-proficiency readers in the third-grade — holding them back a year.

In the previous session, Michigan lawmakers considered adopting a third-grade retention policy. Thankfully the legislative package never found its way out of committee. Michigan should remain wary of adopting this one-size-fits-all policy — it’s expensive and harmful. Educational psychologist David Berliner, a Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University, told The Atlantic:

“It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental. Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading well in third grade that it’s a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you’re going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you’re going to get a better outcome.”

Early Warning System for School District Fiscal Distress

As a top legislative priority for 2015, Snyder called for the creation of an early warning system to identify school districts headed for financial troubles . The current system is reflexive, assigning six levels of categories to districts already treading fiscal water. The governor is correct, Michigan’s Department of Education must develop a proactive model for getting ahead of the problem. But, Snyder and the legislature need to understand that it mustn’t be a prescription for more of the retrograde punitive education policies they are known for.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan this month published a report titled Managing School District Finances in an Era of Declining Enrollment. In it they outline three basic suggestions:

  1. Moderate to significant enrollment decline is a clear sign of existing, or rapidly developing, fiscal stress. School officials and the state must heed this signal. It should be used as an early warning to districts and the state that a district is in trouble, prompting them to take action and provide additional assistance (i.e., technical, managerial, financial) to mitigate the effects of financial problems, including the potential disruption of student learning.
  2. The state should consider revisiting the blended student count formulas used during the past. Current formulas do not take into account previous years’ student counts, but only the current year. By giving greater weight to previous years’ student counts, districts are able to make a more gradual spending transitions to accommodate new revenue levels.
  3. Most importantly, a fundamental disconnect exists between the state’s per-pupil foundation grant and the nature of school cost pressures (i.e., heavy fixed costs in short run). Policymakers should consider modifying the per-pupil foundation grant so that the marginal revenue that a district losses or receives because of a change in student enrollment is equal to the change in marginal costs, either up or down. This would require breaking up the grant to reflect the relevant fixed and variable costs in education.

Focus on Skilled Trades and Enhanced Career Counseling

Here’s a policy area where the governor offered some ideas, again without details, that hold some promise. He called for increased coordination of student services between high schools, community colleges and trade schools, in addition to ramping-up the availability and the quality of career counseling — making transitions seamless for students.

As a by-product of the governor’s push for skilled trades education, he has taken a pro-union stand by objecting to the repeal of Michigan’s prevailing wage law, which affords non-union workers the prevailing union level of compensation on publicly funded construction jobs.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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