Sunday, July 5, 2015

Guest Post: This is How Our Public Schools Die

Occasionally someone volunteers to write a guest post! I think this post, by Steve Norton, the Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools (written in his capacity as a parent, but with the knowledge he brings from MIPFS), is worth your time! He calls it a "companion piece" to the parent letter that was sent to the Ann Arbor school board and teachers' union. (See this post.)

The little embedded video--all of 11 seconds long--is from the movie Independence Day--a movie I've never seen. This holiday should remind us all of our rights and responsibilities as Americans, and that's really what Steve's post is about! (And that's why I've got the text colors set up in red and blue!) --Ruth

By Steve Norton

Everyone who cares about education in our community ought to be paying attention to what is happening right now between the leaders of our school district and the union which represents Ann Arbor teachers. Not to take sides, or to point fingers, but to understand the awful consequences of policies crafted over many years by "think tanks" and lobbying groups who hold tremendous power in Lansing. What we are seeing here today was scripted long ago, by those who hold community governance of education in contempt. Should we continue to follow their script, or should we start writing our own?

As a concerned parent, I definitely want a strong and stable school district which can offer great programs, maintain reasonable class sizes, and avoid constant crises. But as an involved parent, I also know that what matters most for my children is their everyday interaction with the teachers and other professionals who educate and care for them. School is not a place where we send our children to download "facts" and memorize algorithms. A quality education helps teach our children how to think, how to ask the right questions, and how to understand those different from themselves. Together, parents and schools prepare our children to grow into thoughtful citizens and productive members of our community. That's not something which can happen without talented, committed professionals at every level, most especially in the classroom.

So what has our state done to help make this possible? More than twenty years ago, we placed the fate of our local schools largely in the hands of the state legislature, because we gave them control over the funding for our schools. Money isn't everything, but schools are dark and cold without electricity and gas, buses don't run without fuel, and programs don't exist without the people to implement them.

Since that time, districts like Ann Arbor have seen their per-pupil funding lag behind inflation nearly every year, to the point where the real spending power of our funding is  over 21% below where it was in 1995, even before retirement costs are subtracted. Overall state spending on K-12 education has stagnated over the last decade and more, and when the mandatory payments to the state retirement system are taken out, real state per-pupil spending is down 21% since 2002. Perhaps more important, the share of our state's economic product that we use to pay for education has gone steadily down over the last decade: in good times or bad, we are committing less and less of our income to support K-12 schools.

In response, local school districts have been cutting programs, laying off teachers, insisting on pay concessions from employees, and privatizing any services which can legally be contracted out. Class sizes have risen, offerings have narrowed, and teachers have not only had their pay cut but their resources slashed. The rise of high-stakes testing has pushed quality education aside for the sake of test prep. The system, and everyone it it, has been under more and more stress as the years pass by. For background on how this has played out in Ann Arbor, please see the presentation here:

Make no mistake: this was intentional. Having restricted itself to a funding bucket that was no longer adequate for our schools, our Legislature alternated between years when they pompously announced that we "need to live within our resources" and others where they patted themselves on the back for increases which were really illusions. But the consequences of these choices, and the pain, played out at the local rather than state level as school boards were forced to oversee the dismantling of their local schools.

To add fuel to the fire, our elected state officials passed laws to ensure greater conflict at the local level. Starting in 2011, the Legislature made topics which had traditionally been worked out between teachers and school boards into "prohibited subjects" that could not be subject to bargaining and instead are under the sole control of the school board. Sensitive matters to teachers, such as staffing and placement, evaluation, layoff and rehiring priority, and the minimum standards for firing, were handed to beleaguered school boards as a replacement for adequate funding. "You won't get any more funding, but you can use these as leverage to whip things into shape." Already backed into a corner, is it any wonder that school boards were willing to use those new powers?

Furthermore, faced with constant pressure for financial concessions, rising health insurance and retirement costs, and now a real threat to their working conditions, is it any wonder that many teachers and their unions chose to fight back?

But why set this in motion? Well, if you believe - as many influentials in Lansing currently do - that "government" can never to anything as well as the private sector, and that it should be as small as possible, you want "public" education to be placed into private hands. The easiest way to do this is to get families to vote with their feet, and abandon local public schools rather than try to save them. The money follows the children - all of it. After all, who wants to stay on a sinking ship?

It is not necessary to get into the details of what has happened in Ann Arbor to recognize the pattern (for more, see the Parent Letter here []). We are being forced to fight over a shrinking pie. As the pressure continues, and the fights accumulate, our local public schools will be undermined, public confidence in them eroded, and talented educators driven away. This is how our community-governed public schools will die.

When you are in the middle of the fight, it can be hard to step back and look at the big picture. But for our community, it is essential. These kinds of battles will lead nowhere good - and the people who set the stage for this struggle know that. It's time we took it to heart ourselves.

Our school leaders and educators need to set aside their legal weaponry, and quite literally beat their swords into plowshares. All the resources being used to further this standoff, the legal and organizational effort involved, would be better used to secure a settlement among stakeholders locally and to find allies across the state for political action. Those of us on the outside, parents and members of the community, have a job to do as well: we need to do what we can to plug the financial holes for now, and add our energies to the effort to force our lawmakers to do right by our children and our schools. It may seem trite to say "Fight Lansing," but if we do not, our future is clear - and it will play out just as they intended.

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  1. I agree with all that is said in this post. The real problem is with "Lansing" and that is where the ultimate energy needs to be focused. However, as a teacher, how do we get to local conversation and solve our problems here at home when we have this "do it my way or the highway" message from the board? If there is any way to slow down and get everyone back to solving problems rather than making threats I support it whole-heartedly. I honestly hope that is what everyone wants, but we need to hear this message from the board. Why not give everyone an opportunity to back up a few steps and try again? This is what we do when students are feeling stuck. We all may get frustrated but then we take a deep breath, back up and try a fresh approach. As we get our own school district's situation sorted out we need to ALL do our part to fight the real source of this problem and that is with our legislators.

  2. I taught at Huron High School from 1975 to 1985. I enjoyed my time in Ann Arbor even though there were labor disputes during my tenure there.

    I moved to Minnesota in 1985 which I feel is one of the last bastions of support for teachers and public education. Even though resources and support here has been shrinking, it has not declined to the levels I see my colleagues in Wisconsin and Michigan face.

    When I look at comments posted on the National Science Teachers email exchanges and hear teachers at national conference it is shocking to hear of the negative pressures and forces they face.

    As I enter my final year (# 40) I am grateful my two sons have completed their K-12 education before a possible "collapse" of public education. I am sadden to see that many bright, energetic former students are shunning the teaching profession and not considering this vocation which has been my passion for most of my life.

  3. This was a very good article.

    Nitpicking about a word choice: I think it's a little misleading to say that the money "follows" the kids who leave the public schools. It implies some kind of voucher system where you can use state money to pay for the cost of attending a private schools, but that's not the case in Michigan. My son attended a private school for elementary school, and we paid for his tuition ourselves, with no assistance from the state.

    It is true that the money leaves (schools get paid per pupil, so they don't get money for kids not in the system) but it's not the case that the money goes to whatever alternative institution the child chooses.

    1. As a teacher, I don't read it that way. The truth is, each student in any given district it worth a certain amount of money - their piece of the total PPF, or per-pupil funding. When a student leaves leave, the district loses that money. This was just a figurative way (and an effective one) of saying that. I doubt many people who know about tax infrastructure would think that there's any sort of state-allocated "voucher" that every kid gets and can use toward his or her education anywhere they please, public or private.

    2. Point taken. But the main issue is not the loss of students to private options, but the competition for students among public (and publicly funded charter) options. In this sense, the money does follow the student, since their per-pupil funding goes with them (though the amount may change). This has created a zero-sum game for districts that are trying to stabilize their funding in the current environment, since they can only do so in sufficient numbers by cannibalizing other districts.

  4. The legislature was voted in by votes cast by voters of the great State of Michigan. Don't blame the legislators. Blame the public who voted them in.