Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan schools chief offers lesson in improvement

LANSING — Mike Flanagan, Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, has spent his life in public education.

Now, he’s presiding over a system in crisis. Gov. Rick Snyder this month signed a bill that gives the state the power to dissolve two small, economically troubled districts: Buena Vista, near Saginaw, and Inkster, in the Detroit area.

They may be the first to go, but unless something changes, they almost certainly won’t be the last. A record number of school districts are running deficits, including some of the state’s largest school systems, such as Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit.

Mr. Flanagan, the state’s top education official since 2005, believes he understands the landscape of Michigan’s public schools. He’s taking the unusual step of offering two ideas to save traditional public education in Michigan.

The more radical one is this: If it were up to him, he told a joint legislative subcommittee, “I would change over to countywide school districts.”

That would be a vast change. Michigan has 549 local school districts and 56 intermediate school districts (not counting perhaps 250 independent charter schools.)

Replacing that structure with 83 countywide districts would be deeply unsettling to some, especially perhaps the school superintendents who would no longer be superintendents.

Yet Mr. Flanagan thinks it would work far better than what exists now. “Countywide districts work in other states,” such as Florida, he noted in a letter to education subcommittee chairmen in the Michigan House and Senate.

Mr. Flanagan knows there are “many forces that would be supporting and defending the status quo.” So he is urging lawmakers to mandate a hybrid system. That would leave most or all local school districts intact but “centralize administrative and some academic functions at the county or regional level.” These would include transportation, food service, accounting and technology, staff training, curriculum development, and educator evaluation systems.

The superintendent intends to present his plan to the subcommittees when they meet again July 31. What’s not known is how they — or the education community — will react.

This hasn’t been a year of legislative accomplishment. Lawmakers have been unwilling to act on Governor Snyder’s major initiatives, despite his pleading.

Mr. Flanagan thinks his proposal might be different, because some of these reforms represent potential cost savings.

That is what worries some observers. Scott Warrow is head of the Birmingham Education Association, the teachers’ union in one of suburban Detroit’s largest (8,000 student) affluent districts.

“This is really about privatization of the public schools,” and spending less on them, said Mr. Warrow, a longtime high school teacher who has been head of the union for three years.

“This governor and Legislature have been at war against teachers and especially their unions,” he said. That view is shared widely among teachers, because lawmakers outlawed deducting union dues from their paychecks and passed right-to-work legislation.

Mr. Flanagan, who was first appointed by a Democratic governor, says that isn’t his view.

“If it were up to me, I would have a sales tax on services that would be devoted to education,” he said. It is ridiculous that the state collects tax on a coat bought for a child but not on a golf game, he argued.

Mr. Flanagan believes his proposal will help local schools, both academically and financially, by freeing them from having to duplicate noneducational services.

Fred Proctor was principal of Birmingham Groves High School for a dozen years before he took early retirement in June. He believes some of what the superintendent proposes makes sense.

“Birmingham was one of the first to privatize food service, janitorial service, and then transportation,” Mr. Proctor said. “Everybody said that would never work. But the school has never been cleaner.” He added that bus and food services have improved.

Even the teacher union’s Mr. Warrow acknowledged that centralizing transportation and janitorial services made sense.

But Mr. Proctor is wary of anything that would take away the highly ranked Birmingham system’s educational autonomy.

Noting the superintendent’s comment about “providing a more equitable education for all students,” Mr. Proctor asked: “Are we talking about leveling up or leveling down?”

The present system isn’t working. A record number of the state’s school districts are spending more than they are taking in, something they aren‘t legally supposed to do.

The 6,000-student Pontiac district has been able to avoid closing only because of cash advances from Oakland County’s intermediate district. Those advances have stopped.

In many urban areas, public schools have had their funding depleted by students who have left for charter schools. Since 1994, public schools have been mainly funded by a per-pupil grant from the state.

“Everybody knows if we were starting from scratch to design a statewide school system, we never would have done it this way,” Mr. Flanagan said. However, as he noted, this is what Michigan has.

It remains to be seen what the state will do to fix it.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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