Educators sound alarm over lame-duck school bills

Vickie Markavitch

A series of bills pending in the state legislature that would make huge changes in how schools are run and funded appears to be on the fast track for passage before the legislative session expires this month.

The bills would create a new statewide Education Achievement Authority with a goal “to expand the number and types of public entities permitted to operate … public schools.” They would also allow for new conversion schools, moving low-achieving public schools to new management by parental petition. And they would create new types of schools with selective enrollment, including online schools.

Back in 2011, Governor Rick Snyder outlined his goals for reforming education in Michigan. In a message to the legislature, he said his proposals “are designed to move us from school systems to a system of schools.” He said students must be educated “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace,” with funding following students, if they so desire, out of district, to online learning or any number of new opportunities.

The governor turned to Richard McLellan of the nonprofit Oxford Foundation to draft legislation. According to The Oxford Foundation’s website, its goal is to focus on projects that lessen the burdens of government.

The legislation that resulted has been met with alarm by Oakland County school superintendents, who are speaking out. On Monday, Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch spoke to about 500 people in the first of two sessions at Rochester High School. She was joined by the superintendents of the Rochester, Troy and Avondale school districts, who agreed with her that it’s time for residents to contact their legislators.

Markavitch said there has been an effort to get public money for private education for at least 20 years.  When Michigan voters rejected vouchers, the focus turned to educational achievement.

“Their agenda has been to denounce and then defund public education,” she said. “It’s a well-financed agenda and it is succeeding in our state.” At a time when, she said, Michigan is graduating more students from college than ever, “What we are seeing in Michigan is just part of a national effort to cast doubt on public education.”

The legislation (House bill 6004, 5923 and Senate Bill 620) require nondiscrimination in student admissions. They do not allow for religious affiliation for the new forms of schools. But there are provisions for “alternative governance structure” that would exempt the new schools from provisions of the School Code.

Markavitch said it all adds up to segregating students. Rochester Interim Superintendent Tresa Zumsteg said that’s not how Rochester has educated its children.

“Rochester Community Schools has long understood the value of inclusiveness in education. Our students have benefited greatly from this,” she said. “We will become even more segregated based on their plan. …  Each of these bills is detrimental in similar ways to all our surrounding communities.”

Tracy Peters, an RHS graduate who now lives in Detroit, agreed with the charge of segregation. “These are horrible bills,” she said. “I want to inform people in the community. I want to link districts together so we can work together for all kids.”

The superintendents all urged residents to contact their legislators.

“Troy, Rochester, the districts in this area are ones that have really not been touched a lot by the EAA (emergency financial managers),” said Troy Superintendent Barb Fowler. “This legislation for us, however, is big. … It’s really all about being able to offer a public, comprehensive education.”

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