MI Governor Proposes Expanding Options for Students, Ratings for Teachers

Published May 21, 2011

Arguing that improving the state’s education system is essential to economic growth, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is proposing a package of reforms to raise student achievement.

The state legislature in May wrote some of his proposals into House Bills 4625 through 4628. They would require teacher evaluations, that schools use teacher effectiveness instead of seniority as the criterion when hiring and firing, reduce the reach of collective bargaining, and make tenure harder to secure.

Michigan’s legislature has yet to craft legislation introducing some of Snyder’s more innovative proposals, including allowing students to enroll in any district in the state with space for them, encouraging “blended” or virtual learning, tying some state school funds to academic growth, and lifting the charter school cap in any district with at least one academically failing school.

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc) promised “more major reforms to come in this session.”

“The governor is sending a clear message to school districts that the interests of students and parents will drive the agenda here,” said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Michigan-based Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank.

Special Message to Legislature
In a special message to the legislature, the governor touted his proposals as “a plan for Michigan’s future that rewards outcomes and performance. We can no longer tolerate a system where either schools or students are rewarded for just showing up.”

The governor characterizes his plan as good for the state’s economy. Michigan is one of the states hardest hit by the recession, and businesses and taxpayers have been migrating elsewhere in recent years.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress data placed Michigan 39th in the nation in fourth grade math scores, 34th in fourth grade reading, 37th in eighth grade math, and 33rd in eighth grade reading. A new report from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund reveals 47 percent of Detroit residents are “functionally illiterate.”

House staff said they expected this first set of bills to pass, as Republicans introduced them and control both state houses and the legislature. The end of session is scheduled for December 15.

Private School Choice Prohibited
The governor’s proposals fall short, however, in refusing to allow state funds to follow children to any school of their family’s choice, says Van Beek.

“Private school choice is the biggest hole in the governor’s reform agenda,” Van Beek said. “He’s staying within government-owned and -operated schools. He has colleagues in other states all around Michigan expanding school choice in school voucher and tax credits, and Michigan is sitting here without the gubernatorial leadership to take advantage of those ideas, too. He should be interested in those because they save tax dollars, give students and parents what they want, and have been proven to raise graduation rates and test scores for kids in and out of the conventional schools.”

Michigan’s state constitution restrains the governor and legislature from introducing vouchers, tax credits, or any programs in which public funds would support private schools, Van Beek said, so his policy choices are more limited than those available in other states. The state’s constitution includes a Blaine Amendment, which forbids direct government aid to religiously affiliated schools.

To pursue wider options, the governor would have to expend large amounts of political capital and seek a constitutional amendment. The governor currently has mediocre approval ratings in a blue-leaning state. Still, he won the election with 58 percent of the vote.

Calls for Charter Expansion
Barring a change in the state constitution, a more immediate option the governor could pursue is expanding charter schools, Van Beek said. Michigan residents widely support charter school expansion, including many of the state’s teachers’ unions, within limits, which is rare across the country.

The governor also proposes to consolidate 84 separate early childhood programs within the state department of education into an Office of Great Start—Early Childhood.
But, given the governor’s business background as Gateway CEO and his entry into the University of Michigan at age 16, he’s amenable to tailored and advanced options for students, Van Beek said. That experience is reflected in his language.

“Innovation and educational entrepreneurship must be cultivated through improved models of instruction across the state,” Snyder told state legislators. “There must be greater choice for students and parents and greater responsibility and accountability at the individual school level for student growth.”

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.