posted November 28, 2012

In mid-November, the Michigan Education Finance Project released its much anticipated draft of the revised School Aid Act.  While the draft has received a great deal of condemnation in the press (particularly among educators and their associations), we are intrigued by what we see as a comprehensive effort to dramatically rethink how we deliver public education in our state.

For those coming late to the party, the Michigan Education Finance Project was charged by the Governor to rewrite the School Aid Act (the act which defines how we fund schools in Michigan). This work was inspired and guided by the school reform concepts outlined in Governor Snyder’s Special Message on Education  in April of 2011.  Two reforms became centerpieces of the draft: a new approach to learning called “any time, any place, any way, any pace,” and performance funding for schools.

Over the next weeks, PSC will take a look at this effort. What is changing? What does the draft really say? What are people saying about the draft? Today, we’ll start with the big picture – what’s changing?

The draft, as explained in greater detail on the Oxford Foundation website, includes five major concepts.  Here’s our attempt to “de-wonk-ify” them:

  • Choose a district/charter school OR choose a series of classesRight now, families can pick a school district for their children to attend. It might be a local school district or a charter school, but that’s where their choice ends. After a district is selected, the district can place a student in a particular school and classroom and largely define which classes a student takes. Edu-wonks call this a “bundled” approach to education. Practically speaking, it means that students and families get all of their education in one spot. This draft turns that concept upside down by “unbundling” the system. Families and students would now be able to pick and choose the best classes from any district and any school across the state. In other words, students could earn credit, “any time, any place, any way, any pace.”
  • Early Graduation Scholarships—The “any pace” aspect of the Governor’s education plan is focused on meeting an individual student’s needs. This means students can complete courses at a slower pace, if required, or faster if they are ready. To reward students who are ready to graduate early, the draft establishes a $2,500 scholarship for each semester completed early.
  • Performance Funding—Data point after data point has revealed that Michigan students are behind their peers nationally and globally. The draft creates a process to fund schools based on how many students attend (as we do now), AND on how many students learn the content (in edu-terms, how many students achieve proficiency or mastery). 
  • Online Learning with Performance Funding—The draft also opens the door for more online learning. Districts would no longer be able to define (or control) access to online options. Rather, families and children would have access to any program across the state. In order to receive full payment (that is, the full foundation allowance), programs would need to prove their students actually learned the content.
  • Funding Follows the Student—Perhaps the most wonky change is that funding will now truly follow the student. To most, this change is invisible and really difficult to conceptualize.  Currently, Michigan calculates how much funding a district receives by counting the students in attendance on two dates – one in the fall and one in the spring. This means that if students move midyear, the new district is required to enroll them, but they don’t receive state funding for these students until they show up on the next count day. In this draft, districts receive funding based on an average daily membership – a counting method that would allow funding to move when the student moves.

Reforming education has been a hot  issue for decades in Michigan. Our state is home to districts with some of the lowest reading scores ever recorded on national tests. We have graduation rates in multiple districts that fall below 50 percent. This is simply unacceptable and a one-off, piecemeal approach to reform will continue to deliver the poor rate of return we are currently experiencing. The parents and students of this state can and should expect more from a system that consumes such a large amount of the state’s resources and which is entrusted with educating our children.

While this draft is not a panacea, it opens the door for discussions which have previously been dismissed or simply quashed by the loudest voice at the table. By tackling funding first, there is opportunity to rethink the entire delivery system and build a set of processes and tools for students and parents that respond to 21st-century educational demands. Change is disruptive and uncomfortable, but this draft deserves more than presumptive dismissal.