Friday, October 7, 2011

Candidate Ethics

I wrote an article that ran earlier this week:

Detroit News: Big money helps teacher unions stack elections (10/04/11)

For those involved with school board politics, none of this will come as a surprise. But for those unacquainted with the MEA... welcome to the rabbit hole.

A reasonable rebuttal to the article will question whether teachers are citizens and taxpayers too, and whether they have the right to advocate for a candidate they support.

Yes, as individuals, they most certainly do.

The difference is whether the union should get involved. They are the organization responsible for negotiating contracts. I think there is a clear conflict of interest when you help get someone elected, only to sit across the table from them weeks later and bargain a contract.

==> Mike.

I have posted the article below, in case the link does not work.

Last Updated: October 04. 2011 3:32PM

Big money helps teacher unions stack elections
by Mike Reno

From Wisconsin to Ohio, the pendulum is swinging away from union dominance of government, back to a focus on taxpayers and citizens.

But this isn't just a remote national conflict; the struggle is happening in local communities throughout Michigan, and merits attention this November.

Look no further than your local school board election to examine union influence in government.

Michigan's largest teachers union, the MEA, works diligently to insure it is represented on both sides of the bargaining table. They conduct statewide "Elect Your Boss" rank-and-file training classes, and the MEA-PAC (Political Action Committee) is one of the wealthiest and most powerful lobby committees in Lansing.

State campaign finance records show that the MEA-PAC gives generously to school board candidates. Individual teachers and local union PACs contribute money as well. But more importantly, locals furnish boots on the ground.

The locals organize phone banks and literature drops, where teachers will contact parents and ask them to support the recommended candidates.

This union stranglehold over local school boards
has been so effective that our state government has been compelled to intervene, passing new oversight and regulation of our public schools and how they compensate teachers.

Consider this example from Rochester.

I still have a copy of the "mobilize and motivate" letter widely distributed in the last Rochester school board election, signed by the president of the local MEA unit.

In this call to arms, she writes, "We need all bodies at the polls… We believe we can work with the four declared (school board) candidates…"

And boy, did they work with them.

The newly elected Rochester Board of Education, all seven being union-backed, dealt with the worst economic crisis in our generation by laying off learning consultants and media assistants, while giving salary increases and bonuses to the district teachers. In that same year, they raised the local debt millage by 30 percent.

Of course, the trustees will deny that the union support influenced their decisions, and will point to token concessions in the last contract.

Yet they remain silent on why they continue to increase salaries and benefits year after year in the face of declining revenue and deficit budgets.

Most people are astounded this kind of union and trustee relationship is even legal, but it is, and repeats itself every election cycle.

Just recently, the MEA local issued its bi-annual summons for this year's crop of board candidates to appear before them, hat in hand, to seek its "recommendation" and all of the benefits that accompany it.

Fortunately, we see signs that the pendulum is swinging. Candidate Jeremy Nielson published a letter in which he politely declined the MEA invitation. Nielson says he "wants to earn the endorsement and respect of each and every teacher based on the merits of his candidacy," but will not seek the approval of an organization that he will ultimately bargain with as a trustee.

Contrast this with two of the other candidates, who themselves are members of a teachers union, one of whom actually wrote a book on union involvement in the public sector.

Rochester is the example, but this isn't just a Rochester issue. These dramas play out in most of the 500-plus school districts across the state. The voting public remains largely unaware of this union stamp on the ballot box.

Given that local school board trustees collectively spend one-third of the state budget — some $15 billion, with 85 percent going to union jobs — the public must face this situation head-on if public education is to remain sustainable for future generations.

This will be a watershed election year as union special interests battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

Watch these local school board elections, for they will be the canary in the coal mine, and will signal whether union dominance of elections — and tax dollars — is becoming history in Michigan.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Diane Ravitch / Alter / Brooks Debate

Education Historian Diane Ravitch is at the center of a dust-up that has been swirling around for a month now.

I've collected a series of articles that can help to give a flavor of the reform debate. For a better taste... follow this on Twitter (I'm on as @K12Reformer).

I'm not going to comment on it for now... there is plenty of reading below!

This chapter began with a New York Times opinion piece by Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch)

New York Times: Waiting for a School Miracle (05/31/11)

Jonathan Alter (@JonathanAlter), formerly of Newsweek, and now with Bloomberg, writes:

Bloomberg: Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works (06/03/11)

The debate raged on the blogosphere for a month, and included a blog posting by Matthew Yglesias (@MattyYglesias) that has yet to be answered:

ThinkProgress: What Does Diane Ravitch Think We Should Do To Improve Education In The United States? (06/23/11)

The debate really intensified with this piece by Martin Brooks:

New York Times: Smells Like School Spirit (06/30/11)

Jonathan Chait (@JonathanChait) adds to the discussion:

The New Republic: David Brooks Is Slightly Too Nice To Diane Ravitch (07/02/11)

Valarie Strauss (@ValerieStrauss) attempts to minimize / neutralize the rebuttals:

Washington Post: ‘Ravitch Rage’ — cause, symptoms, treatment (07/05/11)

(Funny comment made on the Strauss article: "Oh, when I saw "Ravitch Rage" I just assumed it was the case of rabies Ravitch has seemed to develop over the past ten years.")

From my perspective, the rebuttals to Ravitch are not an illness, they are the antidote!

Anyway, Ravitch goes on to respond here:

New York Times: Letter to the Editor (07/05/11)

There are numerous teacher blogs that bash Brooks/Alter/Chait, etc, and numerous "reformer" blogs that comment on Ravitch. If you find'em, post'em in the comment section below.

Interesting debate, for sure!

==> Mike.


Two Steps forward, One Step Back.

Here's a follow up to a post I made in May, 2010, (found here) that addressed my concerns with dropping the Valedictorian / Salutatorian awards. The video tells it all; people comment to the school board, and the board responds in muted silence.

The Rochester Community Schools Board of Education eventually created a level of awards that makes sense. Honors are awarded based on GPA, ACT Score, and AP participation. I love it!

Two steps forward!

But the, then one step back: they took away the award for the very top achievers.

I write about that here:

Oakland Press: Schools wrong to drop top honor student designations (06/14/11)

Here is the full text of the article, in case the link does not work:


Schools wrong to drop top honor student designations
Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Mike Reno

Tis the season of graduation, and the Oakland University Meadowbrook amphitheater will be filled every night with high school commencement ceremonies.

Watch ’em closely this year, so that you can get a glimpse of an endangered species.

Many schools are ending the practice of recognizing the valedictorian and salutatorian. In fact, they are not only ending the practice of honoring those top students, they are even eliminating all “relative performance indicators,” such as class rank.

This does not just impact those few “eggheads” that earned perfect scores in every class. It’s bigger than that. Consider the message this misguided action sends to our children about drive, self-discipline and achievement.

It puts scholarship dollars at risk. But more importantly it speaks to the very core of how your school board views academic achievement — and the message isn’t pretty.

Rochester schools just changed
its academic recognition policy and will abandon the honors for the highest achievers. They have replaced it with a “grouping” of kids who meet certain criteria such as overall GPA and participation in Advanced Placement Classes.

It’s like the honor roll — on steroids.

Creating this award is great and students who achieve to these levels absolutely deserve recognition. But these “groups” could’ve been an honor supplement, it didn’t need to replace top honors.

Why take away the brass ring? Picture the Olympics, where a “precious metal pin” is awarded to the top three athletes instead of gold, silver and bronze.

School boards offer excuses to explain why they have decided to stop honoring the top achievers.

To rank high in a class, and be at the “top,” the school must rank the students. Imagine the ego damage to those who are not at the top, or rank near the bottom.

Some note that the valedictorian honor has become diluted now that it’s common to have more than one from the class. And some will argue that kids with really good grades may stop taking challenging classes for fear of lowering their GPA and losing their shot at the title. But those concerns can be addressed by giving additional weight to challenging classes. An “A” in an advanced placement class might be worth five points instead of 4. This way, the student who earns a 4.0 taking basket-weaving classes won’t tie with the one who earns a 4.0 in advanced placement courses.

Schools recognize their top athletes by awarding them varsity letters. Rather than eliminating winners, they instead construct trophy displays and hang record plaques on the gymnasium wall. Have you seen similar public recognition and celebration of top academic achievement?

But this is not just about public recognition. There are scholarships awarded to valedictorians and salutatorians. And class rank matters, too, with scholarships available to those placing in the top 10 percent of their class.

So, as you attend graduation ceremonies and graduation parties, be sure to give a sincere hat-tip to vals and sals in the class. They are a dying breed.

Mike Reno is a former trustee of the Rochester Board of Education.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Undermining Confidence In Schools

When school boards continue to spew misinformation, it undermines public confidence in the whole system.

I write about it here:

Detroit News: Local schools haven't made cuts (04/07/11)

==> Mike.

Here is the whole article in case the link does not work:


Governor Snyder affirmed his commitment to education by dedicating a full thirty percent of the state budget to education. Snyder’s budget also prudently balances spending with revenue, and necessitates a 4% reduction in education funding; the first substantial cut since this economic crisis began.

School administrators now predict our children are doomed. Unions are threatening an illegal strike. School boards are insulting their legislators and the governor, and spinning a deceitful message designed to manipulate the public.

Make no mistake: these protests are not selfless concern about the well-being of our children. This is all because the adults in the system don’t want to pay a little towards their health care and retirement benefits, and school boards lack the will or the skill to reform a stale public education system.

If ever there was a time for taxpayers to stand up to this greedy special interest… this is it. The long term stability and viability of public education is at stake.

The Rochester school board provided a great forum in which
we could watch this drama unfold. Within a two-week period, they held a “study session” on the budget, as well as conducted public interviews for a new superintendent. Observers were exposed to the district’s homegrown budget misinformation, and also heard funding sentiments of superintendent candidates who came from other Michigan districts.

Rochester claims they are being forced to accept cuts of over $1100 per pupil, even though Snyder’s proposed reduction is only $300 per pupil. The balance of the “cuts” are not really cuts; they are the end of the supplemental federal bailouts – the so-called “stimulus funds” and the “edu-jobs” money.

School boards knew full well that those were one-time dollars, and have had two full years to plan for the expiration, but have done nothing whatsoever to prepare.

In fact, during that two year period many school boards, including Rochester, committed to expensive employee contracts, even though they knew those federal dollars were set to expire.

The Rochester board approved a union contract they label as concessionary. But over its three-year duration the contract was projected to save one-tenth of one percent. With retirement increases this year, it probably saves nothing.

Since 2005, the Rochester board voluntarily agreed to allow the cost of its union contract to increase by a total of $950 per pupil.

The board goes on to say they’ve cut $28 million since 2001. The budget in 2001 was around $110 million. If they cut $28 million, then it should be around $82 million now, right? Wrong. This year the budget is $158 million.

Only in government does that math work.

What schools do is cut student programs and layoff their youngest teachers in order to make room for salary and benefit increases for the older ones. They report the cuts, but not the simultaneous increases.

And other “cuts” correct the absurd contracts they have been defending for years, such as paying custodians upwards of $60,000 per year in salary and benefits.

So what did the superintendent candidates have to say about this?

They are all from Michigan, and it was no great surprise that they were all in lockstep.

One indicated that if selected, he’d collaborate with the union, and seek support from parents to descend on Lansing and make them understand that “we’re not going to neglect our kids!”

Another believes that our legislators and the Governor are simply ignorant and uninformed, and agreed with the school board that Lansing and the public need to be “educated and informed”, presumably by those that got us into this mess.

What these candidates – and school boards around the state – fail to recognize is the legislature, the governor, and the public is becoming increasing well-informed about mismanagement of our public school system.

Clearly, school boards and superintendents are living in denial, and it’s our job as taxpayers to help them wake up to the reality of today.

If local school boards don’t start spending the billions they receive with better care, then it’s our job to un-elect them.


Friday, November 19, 2010

"Public Education Inc" Software Bugs

I know... it's been a while.

But after watching the Rochester school board emulate Nancy Pelosi and her "We need to pass the bill first, so that you can see what's in it" approach, I had to allow myself this distraction:

The Detroit News: Talk about teacher contracts openly (11/19/10)

This isn't about the contract, it's about the aristocratic approach of the school board.

They'll reveal the contract, immediately vote on it, and THEN "welcome" your comments. Of course, by that point, your views will be irrelevant.

I've pasted below the original piece that was submitted to The Detroit News.

==> Mike.

(P.S. Thanks to Laurie Puscas for tipping me off to the T.A. She runs her own blog,
found here.


Before Governor-elect Rick Snyder can implement his Michigan 3.0 vision, he must first accept that it’s entirely incompatible with an obsolete Public Education 1.0.

PE 1.0 is a school board developed subroutine that, when supercharged with an app called Union 2010, unapologetically consumes one-third of the entire state budget.

If Snyder is unable to debug PE 1.0, these rogue apps will just continue to demand more system resources, and overpower his fresh new program.

Just look at an all too common story that is happening in Rochester, but could just as easily be in any district around the state.

The school board hasn’t passed a balanced budget in at least seven years. This year it’s projecting a $4.9 million dollar deficit.

The actual magnitude of their deficit spending has been masked by the massive infusion of federal Obamabucks over several years.

They just increased the local tax rate by 30 percent. They are deferring building maintenance and technology updates.

Yet the board cannot even honestly face their problems.

Rochester claims to have reduced their budget by $13 million over the past three years. Perhaps in government-world, where a cut doesn’t really mean a cut, they have.
But in the real world, budget documents from the district website put 2007 spending at $160 million, and 2010 spending at $158 million.

Their biggest expense is labor, which consumes over 85 percent of their budget.
It’s quite significant then that the board just announced a “tentative” contract with their local teacher union.

But unbelievably, the agreement was developed in the proverbial “smoke-filled back room”, and in a move reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi and the health care bill, the board does not want to let the public in on the details until after they pass it.

This contract – this secret contract – is undeniably the single biggest determining factor in whether the district will ever balance the budget. It’s one of the biggest decisions the board will make in the near future, and they are making it with the least possible transparency.

It will help to determine how much pressure the board will put on Lansing – and specifically Governor-elect Snyder – for education funding.

The existing contract – which is more or less identical to contracts in all Michigan districts – is structured so that total compensation will increase by roughly 5 percent per year, regardless of performance and regardless of revenue. Healthcare and retirements costs are not capped in any way whatsoever.

The only hope for balancing the budgets and controlling costs is to work out new employee contracts that are reasonable, fair, and affordable.

Does this secret new deal change anything, or is it more of the same?

Will it save our schools, or instead doom them to more years of cuts to educational programs, increased pay-to-play sports fees, and perhaps even lead to a new sinking fund millage?

Will it allow the district to survive on projected state revenues, or will it require the board to pressure Lansing for more money, pleading “for the children”?

This agreement will have a profound impact on the district for years to come, and will affect parents, students, homeowners, and taxpayers alike. Therefore, they should have a reasonable opportunity to understand the contract, and provide feedback prior to a binding vote by their so-called representatives.

The aristocratic school board refuses.

Rochester is not unique. School boards across the state handle their negotiations in the same manner.

Snyder needs to find a way to hold school boards accountable for this sort of nonsense, such as requiring a two week public disclosure period before binding union contract votes are made.

Otherwise, school boards will continue to hold Lansing hostage, and will all but insure that Snyder’s software upgrades will crash.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Risky Bonds and Lazy School Boards

Most people don't know that school boards can raise your taxes without a vote of the people.

In Michigan, we are protected from large tax increases by the Headlee Ammendment, passed in 1978. But taxpayers have no protection against school boards.

Among other things, Headlee limits the total amount of taxes collected by limiting the total increase to the rate of inflation. But there is apparently some loophole that exempts school bonds, and school boards exploit it to the fullest extent of the law.

Rochester's risky bond scheme just blew up, and now they are dumping on local taxpayers with a 30% tax increase, from 5.18 mills to 6.7 mills. There is another 15% increase on the horizon, up to 7.7 mills.

(Incidentally, they'll now be collecting $27.5 million in bond taxes, which translates into $1850 per pupil! That is IN ADDITION TO the $10,500 or so they receive into their general fund from all sources of revenue.)

I wrote about it last week in the Oakland Press:

Oakland Press: Poor management leads to school tax hikes (6/24/10)

What can you do about it? Absolutely nothing.

And don't think this is the end of their desire to tax.

For years the district as budgeted very little for building maintenance, assuming that they would just call for another bond issue, and fund maintenance out of special bond dollars, rather than consider them normal operating expenses.

That scheme has run it's course, and is no longer an option.

However, while they were operating this scheme, the board was underfunding budgets for building maintenance, instead funnelling every available penny to salaries and benefits.

So, they are no longer in a position to pass more bonds, and they have no money in the general fund for building maintenance.

My guess is that the school board will soon be looking for a taxpayer bailout, and they'll call it a "sinking fund."

They'll blame the state for "underfunding schools", and plead for this new tax. Taxpayers will be told they can approve this new tax, or instead watch the district's beautiful buildings fall apart.

I've pasted the full article below in case the link doesn't work.

==> Mike.


GUEST OPINION: Poor management leads to school tax hikes
Thursday, June 24, 2010

By Mike Reno

School bonds are ticking time bombs set to explode this month on unsuspecting taxpayers.

They were planted years ago by lackluster school boards.

Rather than attempt to disarm them and avoid a tax increase, boards will let them detonate, banking on another taxpayer bailout, with little regard for the collateral damage their hikes may inflict on struggling homeowners.

This serves as a lesson to those who ignore school board elections, and ignore the “fine print” when these bonds are promoted.

A school board typically markets a bond proposal by communicating the bond value and millage rate. For example, a district might ask for a $64 million bond issue, with a 5.18 mill tax rate.

However, the “fine print” reveals the millage figure might be a “low introductory rate,” subject to increases determined by your local school board.

This just happened in Rochester, where the 5.18 mill rate
increased by 30 percent to 6.7 mills. Taxpayers have no say, and most will probably remain unaware of the tax hike until they open their next tax bill.

It’s happening in other communities too, such as South Lyon and Royal Oak.

On the surface, plummeting home values are to blame. With housing assessments down, the amount collected by the current millage isn’t enough to make scheduled school bond payments.

Yet as much as school boards might wish to be seen as helpless victims of economic circumstances, there’s plenty they could be doing to relieve our school tax obligations.

Let’s start with the bonds themselves. In Rochester, the repayment schedule is based on the assumption home values would increase 6 percent annually — forever.

This is like taking out a home mortgage with monthly payments that increase annually based on the assumption that you’ll get a substantial raise every year — forever.

Who came up with this idea? A financial consultant who’s been awarded no-bid contracts since the 1990s and also hired a sitting Rochester school board member.

A consultant who now says raising taxes is the only option.

Perhaps a tax increase is inevitable. But rather than merely rubber-stamping it, our elected officials should probe everything, leaving no stone unturned in an effort to avert a tax increase.

Instead, none questioned a misleading board presentation. This increase is $152 per $100,000 of taxable home value, but the presentation attempts to fool people into thinking the increase will be much less.

After the deceptive presentation, and considering how this consulting firm put the district into its present “no option” predicament, the board was urged to go the extra mile on behalf of the taxpayer, and at least seek a second opinion. The board didn’t respond to the suggestion.

Someone then pointed out how the benevolent board has kept tax rates constant for the past decade, as if we should expect regular taxes increases and be grateful they’ve held off for so long. And it completely ignores the fact that 10 years ago the district collected $16.7 million in taxes, while next year they’ll levy $27.5 million.

In the end, the board made no effort to protect taxpayers, and voted unanimously for a tax increase. And there’s another 15-percent increase projected for next year, to 7.7 mills!

The biggest problem isn’t the tax increase; it’s the sloppy way it happened. It’s been a lesson in poor governance, from the risky bond scheme to the conflict-of-interest consultant, to the deceptive presentations, and concluding with the downright lazy decision to skip a second opinion.

These school boards are their own worst enemy. Their behavior and mismanagement causes people to doubt their credibility, ultimately making it difficult to find tax dollars for worthwhile projects and justifiable needs.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sports: The 3rd Rail of School Politics

High voltage electricity was once supplied to trains through the “third rail”. Over time, the phrase “third rail” became a metaphor denoting a political subject so highly charged that politicians who dared to discuss the subject – metaphorically touch the rail – would suffer greatly.

In school politics, athletics is a third rail, and some local school boards recently tested voltage. Sparks flew... and the boards backed down.

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago:

Detroit News: Bloated costs hurting schools (06/03/10)

As predicted, the school board is going to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars out of savings to subsidize sports.

They will spend about $900 per pupil for the 1800 students that play sports, and it comes at the expense of the 13,000 kids who don't play.

Meanwhile, they are slashing $1,000,000 out of the already underfunded building maintenance budget.

Keep all of this in mind when this board approaches voters in a few years to ask for a sinking fund millage. We'll have leaky roofs, and cracked parking lots, and they'll tell you that there is just no money to fix things. Remember their actions here when they trot out the "we have no choice" excuse.

==> Mike.

P.S. I've pasted below the article in case the link doesn't work.


June 3, 2010

Bloated costs hurting schools


For years, irresponsible school board spending set the stage for a financial meltdown. The economic crisis in Michigan accelerated the process, compelling boards to consider tough budget choices.

These choices have brought out competing special interest groups, claws extended, defending their turf, trying to push the cuts onto someone else.

Employee unions are the 800-pound gorilla in these fights, but the "athletic parent" is proving to be one tough mama grizzly as well. They view after-school sports as an entitlement, and attack anyone who threatens it.

This entitlement is being tested in cash-strapped districts, and fur is flying from Rochester to Romeo to Farmington.

In Rochester, student athletes
are assessed a $180 pay-to-play fee, which comes nowhere close to covering athletic spending.

Even after these fees, Rochester athletic spending exceeds $1.6 million dollars. That's nearly $890 for each of the 1,800 student athletes. Add together the school expenditures and student fees, and the average cost for after-school sports is $1,070 per participant.

Compare school spending to several private intramural football and basketball teams in Rochester. Some are recreational, while others are more competitive. They range in cost from $140 to $250 per child per season; up to 85 percent less than the school.

Beyond the annual costs, the district recently installed three artificial turf football fields at $1 million dollars each, as well as two middle school auxiliary gymnasiums "needed" to supplement the main gyms.

Ignoring costs, there's no doubt that sports are constructive for some students. Sports can teach leadership and teamwork, and help a child learn to humbly accept victory or graciously concede defeat. For some, athletics are the only motivation to do well in school.

But the fact remains that after-school sports aren't part of a school's core curriculum, and the costs come at the expense of the thousands of students who do not play.

The $1.6 million dollar athletic expenditure in Rochester is now being examined as the district faces a $14 million dollar deficit. One proposal considers increasing the pay-to-play fee to $450, and athletic boosters are marching on the board with torches and pitchforks.

Yet none of them comment on the layoff notices to 30 teachers and dozens of secretaries, or the reductions in library and special education support staffs.

Deficit reduction proposals consider maximizing the "contractual staffing formula." This is jargon for increasing class sizes to the absolute contractual limits. There hasn't been a peep out of parents.

The board proposes to reduce an already underfunded building maintenance budget, causing speculation they'll soon be begging taxpayers to pass a sinking fund millage. Parents have been silent on this issue.

But the board has received hundreds of letters from athletic parents "outraged" at the increased pay-to-play proposal.

Parents should be upset, but not at the fee. They should be upset that the school board let the cost of sports become so outrageously expensive. And they should be upset that the board continues to squeeze academic and athletic programs to feed unreasonable union demands.

In the end, politicians on the Rochester board -- lacking conviction -- will likely cave to the pressure, pulling more money from the district's rapidly dwindling savings account to subsidize after-school sports.

Rochester is the example, but extrapolating these numbers statewide suggest athletic spending might exceed $185 million annually. And sports may be the face of the debate, but other extra-curricular activities such as drama and choir are also at risk.

Sadly, no solution is in sight.

Rather than deal with economic reality, schools contend this is a "Lansing problem," issuing calls for "stable funding" (more education jargon for a tax increase).

A taxpayer bailout of irresponsible school board spenders is not the solution.

Schools must acquire the fiscal discipline necessary to get spending in line with reasonable benchmarks set by the private sector, not just in sports, but in all areas of their operation.

And boards must develop the communication skills necessary to help us understand why this is the time for shared sacrifice from employee unions, athletic parents, and other special interest groups.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

School Boards to Parents: Talk to the Hand

The Rochester Community Schools board of education has determined that high school senior class valedictorian and salutatorian honors are no longer fashionable.

Moreover, class ranking - a designation which facilitates college admissions and scholarship awards - has also been given the boot by Rochester's school board.

Perhaps there's a good reason for their determination to abolish academic
ranking districtwide, but none of the current board members has been willing to explain their rationale to this parent. (Despite 2 trips to the podium and two detailed written communications.)

The sad fact is that community members who ask questions that challenge the prevailing position of the sitting board are given a stone-faced stare and a "Thank you for your comments" from the assembled dignitaries of Rochester's own "Mt. Rushmore".

Mind you, Rochester's "chosen ones" are not unique in this approach. I've attended plenty of board meeting in other districts, and it's the same story.

School boards tend to view parents and taxpayers as ATM machines, from which they can make withdrawals at will. Yet they offer nothing in return - certainly not meaningful answers.

So long as parents and taxpayers tolerate such dismissive arrogance from
public officials, local school boards will continue to practice "school
business" as usual.

Background on the valedictorian / salutatorian / class ranking issue can be
found here

Watch this short 90-second video, then tell me what you believe the
Rochester school board is trying to "communicate":

School boards claim they want to hear from you.

Go ahead.

Step right up to the altar and talk to their hand.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Trendy Schools Risk College Scholarship Dollars

Attention middle school parents: Is your school board making trendy policy changes that could cost Rochester students lost college scholarship opportunities?

There is a good chance that they are.

Is there a benefit to the students? Nobody knows.

The Rochester Community Schools board is changing the way it honors high-achieving graduates. The proposed changes will improve the recognition system. But ever-conscious of being trendy, the district will also inadvertently take aim at high-achieving students by removing honors and rankings that can undoubtedly help in admissions and scholarships.

I have yet to understand why we wouldn’t want to do everything we can to help in the competitive admissions process, and I’m dumbfounded why we would want to put potential scholarship dollars at risk.


The district currently has no mechanism for weighting grades. As far as GPA is concerned, an “A” in gym or salsa-making is equal in weight to an “A” in AP Calculus. As a result, you’ll have some of the “top scholars” consist of those that really busted their butts with a rigorous schedule, while others “not so much.”

So discussions on grade weighting began in 2006. With weighting, the grading scale is expanded; potentially offering extra points to the grades earned in rigorous AP classes. Instead of a 4.0 scale, the tough classes might work on a 4.5 scale. An “A” in AP Calc would be worth 4.5, while an “A” in Diet and Exercise would be worth 4.0. A “B” in AP Calc would be worth 3.5, while a “B” in Diet and Exercise would be worth 3.0. This would reward those students who took the challenging classes, and allow them to stand out. It might also provide an incentive for those who might otherwise shy away from AP classes for fear it would damage their GPA.

After several years of committee work, the board was presented with a proposal that looked at a different approach. Instead of adding weight to the grades of tougher classes, they were proposing to lower the grading scale. I wrote about that here in a blog entry entitled, “
Come to Rochester, our A’s are easier!


Fortunately the committee moved away from their “lower the bar” initial proposal. But sadly, they abandoned the whole concept of rewards and incentives for rigorous classes. Ironicially, the "grading committee" did nothing about grades! :-)

But they did come back with something pretty good.

Rather than the time-honored tradition of summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, which is generally based solely on GPA, the district will now implement
a more expanded set of requirements:

GPA: 3.9 – 4.0
Four AP Courses
ACT Composite of 32 or higher

GPA: 3.8
Three AP Courses
ACT Composite of 28 or higher

GPA: 3.5
Two AP Courses
ACT Composite of 26 or higher

It’s got a few warts (like no requirement to take the AP exam), but overall I like this proposal because it will acknowledge those that really applied themselves, and showed measurable success.


However, in the process of creating this new proposal, they tossed in a few footnotes. No grade weighting, the elimination of Validictorians, Salutorians, and the elimination of class rank.

They did not explain why.

At one point while I served on the board there was some talk that class rank (and Val/Sal recognition) served as an excuse for not talking rigorous classes. Kids would not want to risk their GPA or class rank position.

This is an unsubstantiated theory. There has not been a meaningful discussion in public on this. And if there were some way to prove it, then one could argue that grade weighting could solve it.

I wrote about this a few years back ("
Academic Achievement Deserves More Recognition, not Less!").

To be fair, there are some highly selective, top achieving schools that have eliminated class rank. These are schools where many students are taking rigorous classes, scoring well, only to find themselves barely making the top 25%. That is not the case in Rochester, where less than 40% of the graduates can pass all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks.

On it's website, The College Board states:

According to a March 2006 New York Times article, some college admissions officers disapprove of the trend away from reporting class rank, because, they say, it forces them to "make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests."

They go on to say:

Most large state universities, however, still require applicants to report class rank (as do many scholarship programs), and rely on it to help sort through the high volume of applications received.

Eliminating class rank, and vals/sals seems to be a solution in search of a problem.


By eliminating class rank, and vals/sals, the school board is putting at risk some scholarship money. Scholarships for vals and sals are quite clear in the requirements. No val/sal, no money. And some scholarships specifically incorporate class rank into their formula. No class rank, no money.

If we are going ruin the opportunity for some students to earn scholarships, then we must have a good reason, right?

I asked that question in a letter to the board. The response: “Thank you. Please provide your home address when corresponding with the board.”

So, I waited around for three and half hours at a school board meeting to ask them in person. Check out the robust board discussion in this clip:

Is it any wonder people avoid school boards like the plague?

I followed-up with yet another letter, and finally received a response. The response did not explain WHY the honors are being eliminated, but does offer a defense that argues our kids will not be negatively impacted because Rochester will join a growing list of high schools that does not report class rank.


The response was thoughtful, but the arguement was weak. It was quite illustrative of the typical debates that happen all the time in education.

For example, one might argue that the trend is moving away from class rankings, and as a result colleges have adjusted their admissions policies to adapt. Therefore, we should follow the trend.

The opposing argument would note that over half of the colleges still consider class rank to be considerably or moderately important. Therefore, we should retain class rank to give an extra boost to the high achievers.

If you were to ask a college, “Do you value class rank?”, the answer would mostly like be “Yes. It’s helpful”

If you ask that same college, “Can you live without it?”, the answer would probably be “Yes. We must, because some schools don’t report.”

In the end, if both sides of a debate can site the same reports and sources as support for their argument, then does it even matter?

Yes, it does.

Schools should be preparing our children to be adults. Competition is part of life. Shielding them from competition is not doing them any good. It spoils them. Pampers them.

We’re comfortable ranking them as athletes, but not as scholars? We’re comfortable naming a winner in a race, but not in overall academic achievement? We can line the gym walls with athletic records, but won't honor our scholars in the same manner?

Our children are entering a world that is highly competitive. College admissions and scholarship awards are highly competitive. A good class rank, not to mention val/sal designation, is not going to be a deciding factor for a college or a scholarship board. But it would help.

We should not be taking away tools that can help.

And school boards should welcome discussion about this, not ignore it.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Of Bucks and Boards: The MEA extends its tentacles

Witness the power and influence the union can wield during May elections.

The MEA's website (found here) brags about local school election victories -- apparently satisfied the union will reap its rewards during future contract negotiations -- yet ignores the full impact of union interests trumping those of students and taxpayers.

The MEA will often funnel money into elections (as shown here), but they usually do so quietly. More often they attempt to influence behind the scenes, with the union providing "soft" backing during elections.

The claims they make are nothing short of outrageous. Look at how they connect the dots: Electing pro-union candidates equates to a pro-education mood? Electing pro-union candidates equates to support of "quality of life"? Where was the ballot question on "unstable funding" that voters reportedly recognized?

In Warren, they claim to have unseated an incumbent. Check out the vote results here. 78,042 registered voters. 7,443 bothered to show up. That's 9.53%. Rest assured that a good portion of them are MEA members, family of MEA members, etc.

In Durand, the famed epicenter of the "wake-up call... for the working class", had some 800 votes cast. I tried to lookup the vote totals, but I'm not even sure where Durand is located! I found Durand votes in Genesee County (found here), where a whopping 7.90% of the registered voters cast ballots.

These local board members live in anonymity, yet collectively control one-third of your state budget -- some $13 billion dollars -- as well as billions in local property taxes and billions in federal tax grants.

You don't think it's happening in your district? Think again.


Election results: Schools win at the polls

Will Lansing get the message?

May 6, 2010 - Voters statewide sent a strong message at the polls this week, approving taxes to pay for education and public safety, electing union-backed candidates, and unseating scores of school board incumbents.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Jim Ward, a media specialist at Forest Hills Northern High School. “The voters are supportive of activities that they define as quality of life – and that’s public service and public education. This broke the whole ‘cut, cut, cut, don’t talk about taxes’ approach. We need to support essential services.”

Hopefully, legislators will get the message: Enough is enough!

Voters support their schools – and other vital public services – and recognize that unstable funding hurts students and communities.

From St. Joseph to Adrian to Bessemer, voters were in a pro-education mood Tuesday.

In Durand, a school custodian whose job was outsourced to a private company in December, won a contested school board election. Paul Mayers, a former union president who now works for the private company, is one of two union-supported candidates who won in Durand.

“I hope it’s a wake-up call,” Mayers said. “This is a victory for the working class.”

Other election victories included:

  • In Warren, voters unseated incumbents in favor or Sue Jozwik, a job recruiter with MEA support, and Elaine Martin, a retired school secretary.

  • The Petoskey News-Review trumpeted election results – the headline was “Big night for millages in Emmet, Charlevoix” – as voters passed several millage proposals in the area.

  • Holland voters OK’d $73 million in school bonds to pay for better buildings, computers, and athletic facilities.

  • In St. Johns, voters passed a $64.3 million proposal to fund high school improvements, new buses, and technology upgrades. Funding requests were also approved in Stockbridge, Portland, Bath, and Ionia County.

  • In Ironwood, two of the three school board races went to candidates recommended by the MEA affiliates there.

  • St. Joseph voters approved a $38 million bond issue for renovations, additions, and equipment upgrades including replacing aging computers.

Despite these positive results, much work remains to secure adequate funding for public education and other necessary services.

MEA is part of a coalition – A Better Michigan Future – that advocates a four-point priority plan to help Michigan. If you’d like to learn more about the coalition and its work, go to

You are also encouraged to take five minutes to contact your legislators and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Tell them to support efforts to provide adequate, stable and equitable funding for education!

And, finally, to learn more about MEA’s “Enough is enough” campaign, a strategic action plan, go to

April 27, 2010


Thursday, March 11, 2010

End School Board / Union Negotiations

It's hard for a conservative like me to believe that government can be the solution, but when it comes to schools, it's even harder to picture it getting any worse.

During my five-plus years serving Rochester Schools, the school board did not pass one single budget that was balanced. Every year they approved deficit spending.

Of course, there was plenty of hand-wringing, but the facts speak for themselves.

Even today, the board is in negotiations with their local teacher's union, and have been for nearly a year. Yet despite losing some $900,000 per month this year -- and projecting a $14 million dollar deficit for next year -- the board continues to plod along with no sense of urgency, passing contract extensions again and again.

Rochester is not unique. I know many "rebels" on school boards across the state, and their experiences are nearly identical.

The current system fails students and taxpayers alike.

Local control is currently "out of control." With local control comes responsibility and accountability. School boards have shown none.

I wrote the following editorial proposing a reduction in school board responsibilities, which ran today:

Detroit News: Let state negotiate teacher contracts (03/11/10)

I've pasted below the article in case the link doesn't work.

==> Mike.

Let state negotiate teacher contracts


Michigan spends more than $13 billion -- roughly one-third of the state budget -- on K-12 education, with an estimated 85 percent going to salaries and benefits.

Most of that $11 billion is doled out in piecemeal negotiations between a well-financed and organized Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and more than 500 school boards around the state. When school boards square off against the MEA, they are out of their league.

Local boards lack financial acumen. I should know; I used to serve on one. At best, they attempt to tweak the nearly identical, outdated contract model governing nearly every district in the state. Even with innovative alternatives, boards lack the resolve or skill to bargain them into practice.

This mismatch could be fixed by removing the amateurs and putting state negotiators at the table with the MEA and AFT Michigan to create a single statewide teacher contract.

The illusion of "local control" is a fallacy. Union locals get their bargaining script from regional MEA Uniserve directors, who are well-financed, seasoned negotiators with a bargaining vocabulary dominated by "gimme" and "no." School board members are an often-changing group of elected community volunteers.

To further taint the process, the teacher union sits on both sides of the bargaining table. It influences local school board elections with a tangled web of state and county political action committees and gets union allies elected. It conducts membership training seminars titled, "Elect your Own Boss."

When negotiations stall, mediators and so-called "fact finders" intervene, the result is often the status quo.

Even state laws have become meaningless. In 2008, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Macdonald refused to hold striking MEA Wayne-Westland teachers accountable for their illegal actions. Another Wayne County judge let Detroit teachers illegally strike for 11 days before ordering them back to work in 2006. The Detroit school district failed to file a complaint with the state, so the union and rank-and-file members were never fined for their apparent violation of the law.

"Local control" is the euphemism that is supposed to make us feel good about this unbalanced contest.

The state already sets school funding, retirement plans and tenure laws. They're setting the framework for teacher evaluations. They've tinkered with the school calendar. Why not add labor negotiations?

It would be far more productive and honest to pit state negotiators against the MEA. It'd be a complex undertaking, requiring a multi-year, phased-in approach. But it would be more efficient, transparent and more equitable to teachers statewide.

Local superintendents and administrators could focus more on education and less on negotiation. More local education dollars could be shifted from negotiators, lawyers and human resources personnel back to the classrooms. Significant savings could be found by consolidating business functions, such as payroll.

Perhaps the biggest improvement would come from making the state responsible for establishing affordable commitments to our teachers and then being accountable for funding those promises.

The bargaining process needs to change, in part, because educators receive exceptional benefits, including premium health care coverage and a defined-benefit pension plan. A step system contractually guarantees significant annual raises for newer teachers without regard to merit or funding. They receive various stipends, longevity pay and even accrue sick days, which they can cash in at retirement.

While there was nothing inherently wrong with offering this level of compensation in the past, these contracts are now unaffordable. Anticipated revenue cannot keep up with the guaranteed cost increases.

Health care costs increase 7 percent or more annually. The blended affect of "step system" pay raises increase payroll costs by 4 to 5 percent a year. The generous pension system is funded by a payroll tax on schools, and it just increased from 16.94 percent of payroll to a staggering 19.41 percent.

Local school boards don't have what it takes to address a problem of this magnitude. As scary as it sounds, the state may be our best hope for achieving fair and affordable school employee contracts that balance the interests of children, teachers and taxpayers.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Come to Rochester --- Our A's are Easier!

Rochester is considering a change in their grading policy for Advanced Placement courses. The idea is to lower the grading scale needed to earn an “A”, with the hope that more students will be more willing to take AP classes.

The highly respected Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews took the Rochester ideas to his national audience:

Washington Post: Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades? (11/27/09)

I am quite certain that the idea is proposed with the best of intentions. But I just don't think lowering the bar is the right approach.

Be sure to read the comments posted by teachers and students… very insightful.

==> Mike.

I pasted the article below in case the link doesn't work.


Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades?

The Rochester Community public schools in Michigan do a fine job. Their leaders often have great ideas. But according to school board member Mike Reno, they are talking about doing something to their Advanced Placement courses that could be troublesome, even though I once thought it was a good idea. (Some people who know me say that is the very definition of a bad idea.)

Here is what Reno revealed in an email to me:

"Our district, in an effort to increase AP participation, is proposing to lower the grading scale for AP classes. The idea is based on the notion that kids in Rochester don’t want to take AP classes because they are afraid that the tougher work will lead to a lower grade, and they don’t want to damage their GPA for fear it will harm their college entrance chances. The district’s logic suggests by that lowering the grading scale, students will have a better chance of getting a better grade, and therefore be more willing to take the class.

"This is not their brainchild. They claim other districts are doing it. They are calling it internal weighting. They believe this is a better approach than grade weighting, where an A in an AP class would be worth, say, 5.0 instead of 4.0. The district argues that colleges strip off weighted grades, whereas an internal weight benefits the student during college entrance. (I believe grade weighting has value when calculating class ranking, vals, sals, top scholars, etc, but think colleges are free to recalculate anything they’d like). Am a crazy to think this is a bunch of nonsense?"

When I first began writing about AP in the 1980s, I saw some sense in AP teachers being somewhat easy on report card grades. You wanted kids to stick with the course. Since they would take an AP exam written and graded by outside experts, they would know eventually how close they were to a college standard. If the student got an A in the course but a 3 (the equivalent of a college C-plus) on the AP exam, that would be a useful wakeup call. I recalled that the AP teacher who inspired me to be an education writer, Jaime Escalante, was livid when another AP teacher gave Fs to a lot of students, leading them to drop the course.

But I later realized I had misunderstood what Escalante was doing. He graded his students pretty tough. He wouldn't flunk them because that would be too much of a turn-off, but if they were doing the kind of work that would get them a 3 on the exam, he came them a C, not an A, on their classwork. He understood that they needed to know BEFORE the exam what they were likely to get, so they would be motivated to work harder if they needed to catch up.

That is precisely what many AP and International Baccalaureate (the other popular college-level program in U.S. high schools) experts told me when I asked them about the Rochester idea. Roy Sunada, for many years a leading AP teacher and administrator at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif., said none of his first reactions to undermining AP course grades were printable. "I will stand firm in my belief that artificial measures or grand-sweeping programs are not productive in encouraging students to seek academic rigor," he said.

Reno himself had good arguments against the Rochester proposal. "If AP in high school is not the time to introduce the real-life challenges to our youngsters, then when is the right time? Do we allow them to leave our community with high hopes and aspirations--and perhaps a false sense of their skills--only to get crushed in college when they are not prepared?" He also put in a good word for "the kids that really bust their humps and get real A grades and stay on top of the game. Don't they deserve the reward and distinction?"

On the other side was Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president
who directs the AP program. He thought the Rochester idea had merit. He called it "another, viable way to weight AP grades in ways that more fairly represent the level of achievement." He and other veteran educators also supported the extra grade point weighting system for AP and IB found in many districts. In Fairfax County, Va., for instance, a student who gets a C in her AP course will see that letter on her report card, but she will get an extra grade point for it, a 3.0 instead of the usual 2.0. That bonus, several teachers say, is important to students who know they are going to struggle in the course.

Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said that was a powerful inducement for one of her most intriguing students. He came from a low-income family that did not even have an Internet connection at home. He wanted to play football, which meant he had to take a government class online over the summer to have time for IB. He was using the computer at the office where his mother was a receptionist, but she was afraid someone would complain. He almost dropped the course until Albright managed to lend him a school laptop which he could take the public library to do his work.

Jon Gubera, AP director for the Indiana education department, said "grades are the single most relevant academic currency for students. In my experience, the best way we were able to incent marginal students to take a leap of faith and join an AP course was through providing a weighted grade so as to reassure them that their overall GPAs would not be ruined by earning a C in an AP course."

Gubera had little problem with the Rochester idea. It reminded him of what happens on many college campuses--"a 70 percent on a final exam, for example, translates into an A in the course." He also thinks some AP teachers do similar internal weighting on their own, without any guidance from their districts. They will give the student working at the 3 level a representative C in course work leading up to the exam. But when they mark the final report card--weeks after the student has taken the AP exam--they will award extra credit and bump them up to a B.

Does that make sense? Grading in American high schools is like cage fighting. There aren't many rules. If there are AP or IB teachers out there with their own special tricks, post a comment here to educate the rest of us.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The MEA is a problem, but your local school board is worse

Year after year, report after report, Michigan’s education system gets pounded.

Detroit News: Researchers from political left and right give Michigan schools mediocre grades (11/16/09)

Yet despite this sort of report card, people fail to hold school boards accountable for their failures.

This is a great quote from the article: Upon the report's release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the country's education system is as important an indicator of economic health as the "stock market, the unemployment rate, or the size of the GDP."

Our schools have smart kids, some great teachers, and wonderful buildings. The state devotes one third of its budget to K-12 education.

Yet school boards have allowed expenses to grow in an undisciplined and out-of-control way, they set no meaningful and/or measurable goals, and have no clear or inspiring vision for the future.

So, while the editorial is accurate when it points out that the MEA bears some responsibility, I think the lion’s share of blame rests squarely on the shoulders of your local school board.

Hold’em accountable!

==> Mike.


November 16, 2009

Editorial: Researchers from political left and right give Michigan schools mediocre grades

Michigan's education system is lagging in data collection and accountability, hiring and evaluating teachers and school management, says a new report co-sponsored by researchers on both the nation's left and right, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The "Laggards and Leaders" report, sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Center for American Progress think tanks, reflects the growing realization on both sides of the political aisle of how stagnant and ineffective the U.S. educational system has become.

Nationally the report's authors found less than two-thirds of American schools provide access to college-level coursework. Given schools' weak support for rigorous academic preparation, it's no wonder America is lagging behind other industrial countries for college-going and completion.

State finance systems are inefficient and undermine innovation, the researchers also found.

Other widespread problems include teacher evaluations that are not based on teacher effectiveness. Only four states require evidence of student learning to be a major factor in teacher evaluations.

"Without the ability to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, school leaders cannot build a cohesive school culture, create an environment of accountability, and ensure that all students will learn," the report said.

In Michigan, the teachers unions surely have been one of the state's greatest obstacles to recent reforms. The Michigan Education Association has been lobbying fiercely against changes in school data collection and alternative certification pathways for teachers, among other ideas, stalling the state's application to win $600 million in competitive federal Race to the Top funding.

The state's higher education system also has been hurting Michigan's Race to the Top chances by resisting the development and use of a long-term data collection system to track Michigan children's growth and progress from pre-kindergarten through college.

The report's researchers noticed and gave Michigan a grade "D" for data collection. The state received "C" grades for school management; technology; staff hiring and firing; and removing ineffective teachers.

Seventy-five percent of Michigan principals studied said teacher unions or associations are a barrier to the removal of bad teachers, 14 points higher than the national average of 61 percent. Eighty percent of principals also reported tenure is a barrier to removing low-performing educators.

Overall Michigan received a mediocre grade. Just two areas, finance and its student pipeline to postsecondary learning, received a "B" grade.

Upon the report's release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the country's education system is as important an indicator of economic health as the "stock market, the unemployment rate, or the size of the GDP."

Michigan, failing in economic growth and job creation, must get its schools in order to educate its citizens out of the Great Recession and get them successfully working in the global economy.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Michigan Schools & MEA prefer tax hikes over $600 million in Federal Money.

Michigan parents are being bombarded with “call your legislator” messages from school boards and superintendents, asking them to pressure the state for more money.

Yet for all of the whining about funding, I haven’t seen a single message from any school asking that parents rally behind the federal "Race to the Top" initiative that would allow Michigan schools to potentially receive up to $600 million in federal funds.

I haven't seen any "Action Alerts" from the MIchigan Association of School Boards -- the MASB -- suggesting that school boards lobby legislators to advocate for this money.

Is it that schools need money, but only want it if there are no strings attached?

Here are a few recent articles on the issue:

Detroit News: Embracing promising reforms would leverage federal money to help students (11/4/09)

Detroit News: School sabotage (11/8/09)

Also note that this is not some new issue. I wrote about his back on August 2, 2009, in a blog entry found here.

Here’s an interesting test… next time you see a school board member from your district, ask them if they know ANYTHING about this legislation. My guess is that they can drone on about the need to raise taxes in Michigan, but can't talk with any depth about this Obama/Duncan "Race to the Top" initiative.

==> Mike.

I have posted the articles below, in case the links don't work.


State ignores $600M for schools

Embracing promising reforms would leverage federal money to help students


Michigan's school funding debate has been cast as a choice between two ideas: Budget cuts or tax hikes. Yet there is a $600 million alternative that has been ignored by key players in the debate.

Taxpayers should take note because the failure to explore this option suggests any tax increase for education will be wasted.

In the next few months, the U.S. Department of Education will dish out $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" money to the states. Michigan would be more likely to receive $600 million of this money if it adopted four reforms: Expand the number of charter schools, create a stronger alternative teacher certification program, link student performance data to individual teachers and systematize reform procedures for failing schools.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of federal money, which often bureaucratizes the schools and advances a questionable agenda. But such concerns are typically overlooked by the governor and many in the Legislature, who desperately seek a school spending fix. In this case,
the proposed reforms show promise.

Consider charter schools. A growing body of evidence indicates that charter schools improve student achievement, and a recent study demonstrates that New York City charter schools have closed achievement gaps at an unprecedented rate.

But charter school expansion in Michigan is effectively blocked by a legislative cap on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by state universities, which approve most of the charter schools in Michigan. School employee unions traditionally have fought raising this cap, arguing that there is insufficient evidence that charter schools improve student improvement.

As for alternative teacher certification, Michigan law theoretically permits it. But every teacher is still forced to obtain a degree specifically in education -- no other specialty will do.

This approach discourages many talented individuals from becoming teachers. Yet research shows teacher quality is key to student performance, and Race to the Top's multiple certification routes would permit accomplished professionals to enter teaching without needing to obtain a new degree.

Michigan's student performance measurements, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and the Michigan Merit Examination are reported school by school. But the results are not linked to teachers to allow teachers' successes to be more easily analyzed. Of course, such an analysis is complex -- many factors go into student achievement -- but the analysis is prohibitively difficult if the raw data is hard to obtain, a point that Race to the Top recognizes.

As for the fourth reform, the Legislature is advancing bills to more aggressively reconstitute perennially failing schools. The bill most likely to pass, however, would make it harder to privatize noninstructional services, robbing districts of a major cost-saving tool.

So why hasn't Michigan adopted these reforms, especially when the state could land an extra $600 million for schools?

The school employee unions view them as threats. They fear more charter schools because the schools are not typically unionized, and reconstituted schools may follow their example. Tracking individual teachers' progress could lead to performance pay and threaten the union's rigid compensation system.

Yet such concerns are primarily about union power, not better educational outcomes for kids.

If the governor and Legislature refuse to consider constructive change, taxpayers should reject any proposed tax hikes. There's no reason to feed more money into a system that refuses the most moderate reforms.

Michael Van Beek is the education policy director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. E-mail comments to">

Additional Facts:

Among the policies states should adopt for "Race to the Top" grants:

Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments of student performance

Using state data to improve instruction

Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance

Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools

Turning around struggling schools

Source: U.S. Department of Education


School sabotage

With Michigan schools facing an enormous funding gap, the Michigan Education Association is attempting to sabotage an effort that could bring in more than $600 million in federal education money.

State policymakers are working to put together one of the essential pieces of legislation required to win federal "Race to the Top" grant money. President Barack Obama is using the money to give states an incentive to enact long-overdue education reforms.

Next month state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan must turn in the application for the competition, now being watched by U.S. foundations for signals about which states are serious about education reform and merit even more funding.

But the prospects for Michigan aren't good. The MEA, the state's largest teacher union, is pressuring cowardly lawmakers to block the Race to the Top legislation, which includes provisions making it easier for nonteachers to secure classroom positions, if they have critical skills.

This seemingly innocuous change has stirred up intense political fighting, pitting teacher unions against Gov. Jennifer Granholm and others, such as the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, who want the Race to the Top funds for Michigan.

Teach for America -- the heralded non-profit that prepares and places highly talented educators in struggling schools -- says it must have an alternative certification pathway for its members to become full-time teachers in Michigan.

MEA leaders say they oppose alternative teacher certification because they believe teacher training is essential to properly instruct students.

"This is not an union issue," MEA spokesman Doug Pratt says. "This is a fundamental belief ... that teachers who go through a traditional teacher prep process are going to be better for students in the long run."

But urban districts are having trouble finding highly qualified math and science teachers, in no small part because of the failure of traditional teacher training programs in the state.

That was one of the driving forces behind a Friday announcement by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that it is investing $16.7 million to establish a new statewide fellowship program to provide 240 teachers for hard-to-staff schools.

If the MEA is allowed to sabotage Michigan's Race to the Top effort, it will mean the loss of about $600 million in federal money at a time when every classroom is facing an unprecedented budget cut. Ultimately, that will mean fewer jobs for teachers, hurting the union's own members.

It is absolutely essential that Michigan gets this money, and the education reforms that come with it.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why do we ignore school spending?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on government spending at the federal, state, county, and even city level. I don't understand why parents will get involved in the school FUNDING debate, but ignore school SPENDING.

Michigan's Governor just announced a shortfall in tax revenue, and the subsequent reduction in school funding. The predictable outcry from schools drove me to write this article:

Detroit News – Schools often don’t budget wisely – (10/27/09)

It ran the day after Governor Granholm used the Rochester Schools Administration Center for one of the stops on her PR Tour to raise taxes in Michigan. I was told that the by-invitation-only event included superintendents, board presidents, union presidents, and PTA presidents. You really couldn’t tell for sure because most of them snuck in the back door of the building.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and House Representative Tom McMillen were also invited. They walked in the front door.

You can imagine the conversations that took place… all designed to pressure Bishop and McMillen to raise taxes. Schools pleading poverty, claiming that they have already cut everything that could be cut, threatening that further cuts to schools will directly impact the classroom.

That was Monday afternoon.

Monday evening, Rochester had a school board meeting.

There was not any mention of the Governor’s visit, nor did the board discuss the additional $1.9 million reduction in state funding that had been announced since the last board meeting.

What the board did do was approve a $45,000 expenditure for wireless microphones “to be used throughout the district in the three auditoriums for events such as Plays, Musicals and Summer Music Theater.”

I’m a “theatre parent”, and agree that wireless microphones certainly enhance the performance. I’d be happy to personally contribute to a fundraising event designed to fund the purchase of these sorts of theatre enhancements.

But I don’t think this purchase can be considered a critical and necessary district expenditure after the board approved a deficit budget of $2.5 million. It seem especially excessive after the additional state funding reductions, which will presumably push the deficit to $5 million.

It was approved on a 6-1 vote.

Its one small example that shows how school boards are oblivious to the situation they’re in.

==> Mike.

I’ve based the article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Schools often don't budget wisely


When Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut $54 million in "hold harmless" education funds, some critics suggested she did so for political reasons. Michigan Republicans should have accepted at face value that Granholm was following the GOP lead in trying to balance the budget without tax increases. But they didn't.

And schools are playing on that fact by turning up the heat and hyperbolically suggesting the government is cherry-picking whom they want to punish. Superintendents are bemoaning the cuts, using taxpayer resources to lobby parents and direct them to flood legislator phone lines and e-mail boxes with demands that education remain a priority.

No superintendent has acknowledged the fact that the state does value education and already spends one third of its budget -- about $16 billion -- on K-12 education.

The missing counterbalance to this outcry is spending oversight. There is an assumption that schools spend prudently, and their budgets can't absorb cuts. Just ask them, and they'll quickly offer meaningless sound bites like "We've already cut muscle, and are now cutting into the bone."

Somehow school boards get a free ride on spending accountability. Where is the critical eye on local school spending? School board meetings are sparsely attended with a handful of regulars in the audience and few from the media. School budgets are published in a way that even seasoned certified public accountants can't scrutinize.

Yet many parents jump -- without question -- when schools issue a call to action. Schools shamelessly threaten that our child's future will be harmed if we as parents don't jump.

This reflexive parental response is perplexing given that whenever the specific warts in a school budget are revealed, taxpayers are appalled. Gold-plated insurance benefits and a generous pension plan are among the best known. Superintendents make more than the governor. School boards approve multiyear contracts with guaranteed increases despite knowing future revenue is at risk. It's irresponsible, yet nobody holds school boards accountable.

Even school claims that "we've already cut" go unexamined. They will typically call a reduced spending increase "a cut." And when true cuts are made, they are typically made to preserve other poorly managed programs or contracts.

In the most recent round of state reductions, the per-pupil funding is decreased $165 per pupil. Schools are upset because it's coming mid-year after budgets have been established.

This is a bogus argument.

Schools have known for a year or more of the state's distressed financial condition. Groups like the Michigan School Business Officials monitor state revenues and provide guidance. In January, the School Business Officials group predicted cuts in the range of $100 to $150 per pupil. In Rochester, the school board chose to budget for a revenue cut of $110 per pupil.

Any school board that did not budget some sort of cut has no excuse for not doing so.

The $54 million line-item veto by Granholm is a different story. But even though it came as a surprise, it still merits examination.

The so-called 20j or affluent districts levy additional taxes on their residents and receive a $54 million supplemental payment from the state because they were spending more per-pupil in 1994 than the then-new Proposal A formula allowed. It's this supplement that was vetoed.

It's certainly a painful cut, but will it be fatal? Nearly $20 million of the cuts will come from Oakland County districts. Collectively, the 12 districts affected are sitting on nearly $140 million in "rainy day funds."

The question of whether it's fair for them to shoulder another $20 million in cuts is as subjective as the question of whether it's fair that they've continued to receive an extra $20 million for 10 years.

There is no clear right or wrong answer. But it's reasonable to ask -- especially in tough economic times -- whether affluent districts could bring spending more in line with other successful districts. At a minimum, taxpayers should be entitled to understand specifically what would be lost should the cuts be made.

But if few are questioning anything, schools are free to continue with business as usual, using our children as funding shields, accountable to no one.