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.


Anonymous said...

Roughly 1.6 million public school students (in Michigan)to split $600million dollars.

Hmmmm. That's about $375 per student.

That's real money. It's still government money and therefore another tax burden. Is it "one-time" money? Does it mean creating long term programs or beauracracy that won't be funded?

But why just pass it by?

Education Action Group said...

Thursday, November 9, 2009
5:00 p.m.

Contact: Steve Gunn, communications director
Phone: (231) 903-5585

Note to MEA: Help schools reform or get out of the way
Michigan stands to receive education windfall, but union stands in the way

Across the state, officials from the Michigan Education Association are spreading the message that the only way to properly fund our public schools, in the wake of the recent reduction in state aid, is to increase taxes or spend the balance of our federal stimulus dollars.

One MEA official even suggested we should start by raising taxes on retirement income for elderly people.

But the MEA, in its thirst for higher taxes, is deliberately misleading the public about available funding for K-12 public education. There are several other promising options to pursue, starting with President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” education initiative.

Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, is currently preparing an application that could bring Michigan schools up to $600 million under that program within the next few months.

To quality for those dollars, the state legislature will have to enact several reforms designed to increase school choice and improve the quality of education for Michigan’s K-12 students.

They include uncapping the number of charter schools, making it easier for professionals in other fields to become public school teachers, linking student performance to individual teacher evaluations, and devising reform measures for failing public schools.

Separate pieces of legislation, addressing all four of those proposals, are currently under consideration by the state legislature.

If the criteria were met, and the state received the $600 million grant, schools would not have to experience the brunt of the recent reductions in state aid. And the required reforms would help Michigan begin the long overdue process of changing the fundamental structure of its public education system.

A recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that Michigan students are falling academically behind their peers in other states and below the national average. The report also indicated that the state’s decline in academic performance has been ongoing for several years. Clearly changes are needed in the way we run our schools.

Unfortunately, the MEA leadership does not seem interested in the "Race to the Top" dollars or the reforms attached to those dollars.

MEA government affairs lobbyist Donald Noble recently told the Adrian school board that the state must restructure its tax system to provide more money for schools. In other words, we need a general tax increase. He even suggested a good place to start, by eliminating a tax exemption on retirement income.

For years Michigan public school teachers have existed in a safe cocoon, protected by tenure and the seniority system, and insulated from any demand for increased accountability.

But it’s becoming painfully obvious that we need more accountability in the classroom if we want our students to be prepared for the future. Excellent teachers should be rewarded, mediocre teachers should be forced to improve, and those who refuse to improve should be shown the door.

“It’s time for our teachers unions to come out of the Industrial Age, join the president in his pursuit of educational excellence, and help our state secure sorely needed school funding,” said EAG Vice President Kyle Olson. “If they can’t do that, they should just shut up and get out of the way.”

Bill said...

The EAG still exists? Man, that site hasn't been updated in months. I thought Kyle was now trying to suck a living off of ACORN.

Tell Kyle thank you for being the final push that got me to run for--and get on--our local school board.


Bill said... the topic at hand: I don't know anyone who is opposed to looking into these "race for the top," funds. But two cautions: 1) is it a one-time shot of dough? 2) the changes required aren't something that can be done with the wave of a magic wand and--tada--tomorrow there's $600 mill sitting in all our laps. And, no, it isn't the entire fault of democrats. Or unions. Or republicans.

These crap tactics of trying to villify ___________or_________ to elicit a political viewpoint needs to stop. That goes for BOTH the right and the left.

These "race for the top" dollars would not get here in time to stop the sinking of the Titanic that is our current school funding.

There needs to be structural changes to the way Michigan collects money for its schools.

End of story.

Bill said...

Why can't K-12 districts offer its employees the choice of personal 401Ks or MPSERS like higher ed can do in Michigan? Who's asking that question? And before you go blaming the MEA once again for that, I'd suggest the opponents of such a change might surprise you.

I CHOSE a 401K over MPSERS. Many of my colleagues made the same CHOICE as well.

Diana Huetteman said...

I agree there should be structural changes in the way Michigan collects money for public education. There also should be structural changes in the way Michigan spends money for public education. We cannot continue to support doing things in public education the way we always have just because (fill in the blank)________.

With close to 85% of every school district budget spent on salaries and benefits, its time to introduce competition in benefits packages, consolidate and combine districts, their services and administration for economies of scale and use prudent, conservative financial models to plan reasonable budgets based on long term foreseeable decreasing state allocations. Incorporating principles of "Race to the Top" could help with fiscal transparency as well as setting responsible education standards for teaching our children.

I endorse raising the bar on teacher quality and teacher certification. If that certification comes from an alternative route, so be it. As a student teacher in 1980, I needed to take a course in Ebonics to earn my certificate. We can do better than that.

Not to even try for these federal funds because they won't be immediate or a sustainable revenue stream is ridiculous. At least try and see if this plan improves the situation in Michigan. We should already know that not trying doesn't help.

Bill said...

Diana, I agree with many of your points. I guess I don't see school districts--and that means all vested parties--receiving enough credit for cost-saving decisions they've already made in the past decade.

Does that mean there shouldn't be more accountability? Of course not. But I find it repulsively ironic that certain entities are cheering someone like Mike Bishop for "holding a line in the sand" so that our taxes don't go up (gasp) $5 a person--and in the same breath inferring schools have never ever done a damn thing to save money. Ever.

I hate the goon, stupid politics and the dumbass pandering.

Bill said...

...and you'll also notice that nearly 100 percent of school millage and bond issues passed last week in the general election. What does that tell you? It tells me there's a disconnect between the general population and people like Mike Bishop.

Mike Reno said...

Where'd you get these figures, Bill? They might be true, I don't know. Just curious if you've giving it a thorough look, or are just making it up.

Same goes for that $5 figure. Is that some per-capita estimate?

Rather than the "disconnect" you imply, I believe voters might see a difference between local tax increases imposed for infrastructure investments, and statewide tax increases imposed to support union demands for salaries and benefits.

And the reason schools don't get the PR Credit you desperatly seek is because many of them are phantom cuts. For example, it's hard to get excited if school spending was going to rise 7%, and they scaled it back to a 5% increase.

Diana Huetteman said...


Some districts have had to address their spending and some have instituted small cost saving measures - not because of foresight but because they've had to. When RCS ran into the $3+ million it owed the state for DDA shady accounting practices, parents, like me, chipped into to equip classrooms with writing paper, pencils, toilet paper above and beyond the beginning of the year donations. RCS got very stringent about certain low key cost savings - turning out lights, using resources better. The point is there are more economies of scale that could be recognized by district's sharing services, administrations and yes, even, privatization.

I look at the little kingdoms that have set themselves up financially in my district and how adamant their leaders are about NOT pooling resources. Our use of "consultants", our hiring practices of multiple law firms because they'd rather play CYA than do it right the first time, our strange process of hiring small companies that aren't rated by standard business journals or that even have websites that list their executive officers, shows a total lack of fiscal acumen by our BOE.

While public schools aren't businesses, they do have sectors that should be run with standard business processes. I haven't seen a great deal of standard business process applied in districts. When a BOE member questions why the district should have competitive bids "because we haven't done that in 12 years", bells should be going off. When an opportunity to refinance a bond at a lower rate comes up and the majority of BOE members turn it down because "it doesn't help the district", that tells me that our BOE, our administration, need a dose of reality and a PDQ education on basic finance.

Diana Huetteman said...


Both sides of the State's political arena posture for the best light. Which is hard to do when engaged in a mud fight. This post of Reno's is about money available to Michigan from a Federal source IF Michigan incorporates some needed changes. Other states have been able to use this money with its strings, so why not Michigan? What we have always done in public education isn't working. Time to try a new approach, not throw more money in the pit.

What personal issues (and I'm not disagreeing) you have with Mike Bishop need a new forum. If you live close to my neighborhood, you've seen whole streets plastered with orange sheriff's tags this past summer. Our charities are strained trying to keep up with demand. There is no extra money for a whole lot of folks. This isn't the time to ask for more when there is still financial improvements that can be made to all governmental operations. For those mills that were recently approved, they were a generous gift by citizens extending trust. Will those districts respect that trust or will they come back for more next year? Let's see what happens in Troy's special election before making across the board generalizations that the public can and will afford more.

Anonymous said...

Diana: RCS has on several occasions refunded bonds to get a lower/better rate and save money.

Mike: you are quick to accuse people who dissagree with you of "making things up."

Yet Diana's comment about the BOE goes completely unchallenged.

Mike Reno said...

I asked just a few months ago that the board look into refinancing the bonds.

Right now, the district is not collecting enough money to pay it's bond obligations. It had enough in surplus to cover the deficit, but that that surplus is now gone.

A few months ago smart money was looking for safe havens, and it would've been an excellent time to look into refinancing.

Birmingham, for example, did it.

I'd bet that the district could've lowered it's interest rate, as well as smooth out the payments in order eliminate the deficit -- and avoid the likely tax increase that will happen next year.

The board was not interested... didn't even want to CONSIDER it.

So... armed with that first-hand knowledge, I'm not sure why I would challenge Diana's assertion.

Anonymous said...

Mike: you forget history so soon.

RCS refunded bonds just after you got on the board. From my memory it was done twice since Bond 2004.

Maybe if you had more involvement in actual citizen budget committees you would remember.

Bond refunding is "on the table" in our committee meetings but TEA parties and PACs are more important.

2 more meetings and ta ta.

Mike Reno said...

I didn't forget anything. The question wasn't whether they had done it, the question was whether they had ever dismissed the idea.

I also know it's "on the table"... where it's been sitting -- dormant -- for months.

And sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not going anywhere! :-)

Bill said...

Well, I try this again and see if Mike's in a better mood and let's me answer his question.

Multiple sources have said that if the personal income tax exemption is frozen, there's around $40-50 mill right there (at a cost of about $5 to the average taxpayer). Tobbacco taxes on products not currently taxed could generate another $150 mill.

There are also advocates who would LOWER the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent but cover service and entertainment businesses currently exempt. It should make perfect sense to any rational human being that the person buying a ticket to a Tigers game should pay a tax just like the mom who buy's a pair of school shoes for her kid at Kmart.

There, is that tone better, Mike? And I'll make you a deal: you and Kyle okay the personal income tax exemption and I'll pick up the extra tab for BOTH of you. Let me see it in writing and your $5 checks will be in the mail the next day.

I'm serious.

Bill said...

...and I'll offer Ms. Day double ($10). She can use the extra $5 to buy pretty poster board for the next tea party.

Again, I'm serious.

Bill said...


I never said schools shouldn't pursue the $600 mill. I said that money wouldn't get here in time to solve THIS crisis. The headline, aside from its Hannity-esque hack attack on the MEA, suggested all our problems would be solved expediently and perfectly by jumping through aaaallllll the hoops necessary to get the dough.

Our dysfunctional legislature can't even agree on the simplest of things right now. I dare say they couldn't get their heads out of their asses enough to make out an intelligent lunch order. But yet you all have faith that they could do all of those things necessary to get the $600 mill in time to fix the current problem.

Yes, let's go for the dough. I have no problem with that. But using that as "the" solution is a bit of a red herring.

Mike Reno said...

Bill's constant references to "tone" and my mood might be a mystery to readers, so allow me to explain.

He thinks I deleted one of his insightful comments.

I did not.

The comment, in all it's snarky glory, can be found right where he posted it... under the wrong story (Why do we ignore school spending).

Bill said...

Well, unlike our State Legislature, I can freely admit when I make a mistake.

Oops. I screwed up ;) I should be embarrassed right now, but strangely I don't seem to have any shame :)

btw: "snarky" is one of my fav words. Love that word.

Bill said...

I'm going to go after Bambi this weekend, so I'm counting on you, Mike, to hold things down until I get back. Think you can handle that?

I'm a liberal, yet I come from a long line of hunter gatherers and weapon hoarders. Weird, I know.

Elmer Fudd said...


Take Cheney.

Anonymous said...

Mike: I asked the superintendant and the ACT group about refunding of bonds last night.

The reason RCS can NOT refinance anymore bond debt is because RCS has hit the limit on the number of refundings available under the law.

Too bad 4 years ago we could not see today's interest rates.

So back to my original comment.

It appears that EVERY opportunity to refinance bond debt has been taken advantage of. RCS has exhausted the number of refinances allowed under law.

Why did you not know this?

Mike Reno said...

Because Marty, the board has never been informed of it.

The bonds were issued in 2004, and I believe they've been refinanced once, while Dietz was still here.

When he presented the refinancing, he talked about not wanting to "churn" the bonds too often because it would yield commissions for the finance firm, while only offering minor improvements for the district.

What I'm really concerned about, though, is that at the time the refinancing was done, the board was never told, "This is your last shot, make it count".

AND... I'm also curious why, after bringing up the subject of refinancing bonds at least three times this calendar year, the board has never been told that it is not an option. This is all documented in Business Sub-Committee meetings.

So, needless to say, I was a bit annoyed after seeing your post.

I contacted the administration and asked for details. They had none. They explained that the district consultant had just told them what you explained here.

I asked for specifics, and they are going to report back.

If this is indeed true, I'm really glad you uncovered it.

Anonymous said...

Well; these are ther stones being turned over by the Citizens Group right now. We are meeting again like in 2002/2003 to dig into current finances and find ways to save what we can.

This time we are meeting at night after work. Last time I used a week of vacation time to donate to the effort.

This time there are many more local buisness owners involved. Several of these buisness owners have expertise in areas of finance and specificlly consulting.

So far no droning on about raising taxes.

Bill said...

There's actually a lot of chatter going on in Lansing right now, Mike, concerning these funds. Unfortunately, it looks like the a few officials are trying to cobble together whatever seat-of-the-pants stuff they can do in order to qualify for the dough by the short deadline time.

Bill said...

Well, guess I was spot-on right on that one, eh?

The really funny thing, Mike, is that one of your conservative "friends" believes the RTTT is part of the plot to usher in the one-world government and the rise of the Anti-Christ.

Gotta give points for originality, anyway.

Then again, the EAG thinks the MEA is killing RTTT. Maybe they're the anti-christ?

Hmmm....the plot thickens.