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Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson

Choice Legislation

December 21, 2012

For many years, Michigan schools have tried in many and varied ways to improve student performance across the education spectrum. Based on the experience in most of the state’s urban school districts, there is little evidence that the decades of reform efforts have paid off. But the anticipated Michigan schools-of-choice legislation promises to be an effective mechanism that takes the concept of successful schools to a new level.

The proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act would replace the School Aid Act of 1979. More than that, it would change how K-12 learning takes place in profound ways. Not the least of which is that students would be allowed to choose to be educated in any public district with an open-enrollment policy. This would be the epitome of “access to opportunity.”

The potential benefits of parents being able to see their children educated in stimulating, orderly, vigorous schools are substantial.

The possibilities from remarkable and innovative administrators breaking from traditional theories about education to adopt choice models are endless. Given autonomy, authority and flexibility to develop curriculum and select instructional supplies, for example, schools could be organized around a variety of themes and philosophies. Each school could have its own distinctive style. Parents could select a quality school that conforms to their interests – students their abilities.

Some specialties might include performing arts, liberal arts, computer science, engineering, aerodynamics, math immersion and other technologies. The legislation already envisions a limited number of cyberschools to provide an alternative to traditional school districts through online learning.

Parents gain enormous power – not the least of which is the sense of ownership and the ability to put underperforming schools out of business. Since per-pupil funding would follow students to the district of their choice, mediocre schools would no longer be guaranteed a pool of students and compelled to be more accountable. The educational level of the entire school system as a whole should improve. And there’s no downside to closing under-achieving schools.

School systems, for parochial reasons, have seen fit to take authority out of schools and centralize it in a bureaucratic nightmare. However, if more power is given to choice-motivated schools, the forces of competition could replace the stifling monopoly.

Choice schools could identify and hire the best administrators and teachers. Teachers could share in the decision-making, allowing for the development of a staff bonded by a common vision and commitment to the district’s educational philosophy.

Expect a gnashing of teeth, marching, demonstrating and vocal opposition to choice from teacher unions and school bureaucrats intimidated by and fearful of change. Critics will complain that schools in the urban core would simply be unable to compete and destined to close. They also claim that some parents aren’t equipped to effectively choose the best schools and their children will be trapped…that choice will destroy the public school system.

But teachers who are confident of their abilities have nothing to fear from choice. Indeed, since state money will follow the students, many schools will benefit from an attractive product. And a better-functioning system would enhance public support and thus better working conditions.

Equally important is that new teacher enthusiasm and student performance gains can be accomplished without more state spending or changes in district financing. With education organized as it is today, school bureaucrats prop-up education systems with more money and then try to juggle how those dollars are used without having an end product in mind.

The merits of choice are too numerous and too well documented for Lansing to delay in pushing through what appears to be a sensible and clear path to school reform. It involves no great revolution in urban areas since charter schools are already growing in popularity. And high performing suburban schools can opt in or out.

Choice is no panacea. But because it builds on well-established principles of accountability, Michigan lawmakers must give choice a chance.

Bill Johnson is founder of Bill Johnson Group, a public affairs, public relations and media consulting firm. The former Wayne County administrator is an award-winning journalist who formerly worked for The Detroit News and Detroit area broadcast news organizations.

December 20, 2012 · Filed under Johnson

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Fellows // Dec 21, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Change for the sake of change is not a meaningful way to approach what frustrates parents, students and teachers about the current system of education. Applying major revisions to the structure of how money is distributed without an adequate analysis of the root causes of this frustration is a recipe for disaster.

    Where are the experiments in giving up the Carnegie unit for granting credit? Where are the experiments in opening schools 24/7? Where are the experiments in ending standardized test scores as a status criteria? Where are the experiments in “flipped” schools? Where are the experiments in integration of academic disciplines? Where are the experiments in allowing teachers and students to run their schools and classrooms?

    In the current and proposed legislation these real opportunities to address the frustration with current policy and practice are absent. Absolute power and authority remains within the MDE and the halls of the legislature (therefore with special interests).

    If Henry Ford had used this method of process improvement change would still require the use of buggy whips and bigger shovels to clean up the streets.

  • 2 James Brazier // Dec 21, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    You have villainized professional educatoors working in our public schools to justify taking their resources to subsidize private operators of schools with public dollars and local school district buildings. Your fantasies about the greater choice granted to parents with the education reform can be logically extended to also justify vouchers.

    The system being set up the education reforms will do little to really help the poorest perfromaing schools with the poorest children. It becomes a model for causing there to be even greater disparities in performance and resources between the richer and poorer children now in our public education system. It is a “Trojan Horse” of pretending to help out the poor while giving the well-off a vehicle for shiftng public dollars to private schools in the name of parental choice.

  • 3 Joanee' Johnson // Dec 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    According to your article I think I am one of those you might deem “equipped” to determine the best school for my children and I strongly oppose your recommendation. We cannot continue making decisions that advance the well equipped and leave behind the “ill-equipped”.

    What you seem to forget is that in this world we are ALL connected. At risk children do not stand a chance in the world you envision. And no matter how hard we may work to shield our children from “them” what affects one affects us all.

    And I do not agree that “teachers confident in their abilities” will embrace this change. I am from a family of educators and principals and I am always in awe of the stories they tell about their students and their jobs. They all say that teachers are expected to perform miracles with children entering Kindergarten with no concept of the alphabet, knowledge of their own name or even how to hold a pencil!

    So this gnashing of teeth you predict will not be from teachers that are not confident of their abilities. Instead it will be from teachers with “on the ground” realistic points of view that know that providing parental choice in schools will only harm the poorest people, schools, neighborhoods and its children.

  • 4 Jim // Dec 24, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Bill, what I haven’t seen published or written are the factors/issues that cause a school to underperform. Has any group or inividual done an in depth study (objectively) over a period of time to conclude what casues a school, not the system it’s in, to fail?

  • 5 Scott Edick // Dec 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    This is the second piece about education “reform” in Dome this month without the
    integrity to speak to the fact that this “crisis” is, at its heart, about
    money; about who pays and who benefits. To the extent our education system is
    broken, it is the too-predictable result of decades of slashing the resources we
    provide our schools while constantly asking them to do more*.

    Michigan business and personal property tax cuts passed just in the last two
    years have been worth more than two billion dollars per year to business. Much
    of the sacrifice to enable those cuts is being borne by our schools.

    A single auto factory, the GM Delta Township plant, received a third of a
    billion dollars in tax incentives and infrastructure improvements when it was
    built, but wasn’t open a year before they were talking about how a modern
    factory needs highly educated employees – yet another thing they need that
    someone else is supposed to buy.

    Imagine if we told the corporate lobbyists complaining about their clients
    being asked to contribute to the cost of shared infrastructure (including
    education), “we can’t just keep throwing money at the problem, you’ll have to
    innovate your way out of this”.

    Today’s college graduates pay two thirds of the cost of their education in
    tuition, rather than the one-fourth share paid by those of us who went in the
    seventies. Then, as now, most of the rest was made up by taxpayers who not only
    benefitted from a smarter, more productive workforce, but earned a healthy
    return on their subsidy investment via the taxes on our increased earnings.

    For-profit education seems a great idea if you own a for-profit school, or lobby
    for them. The reality is that, in education as in the rest of our economy, we
    long ago passed the point of vanishing returns for allowing owners and
    executives to reward themselves by cutting corners on product and cutting the
    pay of those who work to provide it.

    *Nevermind problems with straightforward, if expensive, solutions like
    keeping up with changing technology. Look instead at things like the
    responsibility with which the courts have saddled our public schools in
    addressing treatment of racial minorites and the differently abled. It is almost
    as if, when we have a social problem we don’t know how to solve, we dump it on
    our schools.

  • 6 Bob Allen // Dec 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Apart from what the other people have said here, Mr. Johnson’s commentary sounds, strangely, as if it were written by an education bureaucrat. Speaking as a parent with two kids in a really good school district, I am inclined to maintain a jaundiced eye on the teachers and administrators of the district, while at the same time vigorously opposing, in general, the vacuous, superficial, drive-by assertions made by those who think that what is lacking in education is choice.

  • 7 Donna Anuskiewicz // Jan 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Good teachers have every reason to fear choice. After all, if students leave for “greener” pastures, they impact all classrooms, even the good ones. I have had students leave for the following reasons: they think they’ll do better in another setting, they’ve decided to live with the other parent, they’ve been thrown out of their parents’ home and want to live with another relative in another district.
    School of choice even puts students at risk. They can’t ride the bus home, so they hang around school until someone comes to take them home. We all know about idle hands and the trouble they cause.
    People pay what they must for cable TV, sports shoes, vacations, cars, doctors, lawyers, but draw the line at spending more money on education. Shame, shame, shame.

  • 8 Chuck Fellows // Jan 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

    To Jim that asked if there has been a long term study of what causes schools to under perform. The answer is yes.

    “The Fourth Way” by Hargreaves and Shirley is a good place to start. It is a comprehensive look at school reform efforts. “Finnish Lessons” by Sahlberg describes the journey Finland took to create schools with excellent outcomes.

    Alfie Kahn at alfiekahn.org has assembled studies that demonstrate standardized testing is ineffective in achieving its goal of assessing student progress.

    Finally, edvisionsschools.org, bigpicture.org, sudval.org and the Coalition of Essential Schools are experiments that are working to enable learning.

    Unfortunately the vested interests in the status quo are unwilling to do their homework, focusing instead on the preservation of their personal comfort zones.

  • 9 Hidemyass Pro // Mar 12, 2014 at 2:35 am

    Destiny February 12, 2014 at 11:01 am



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