Grosse Pointe school officials urged the 300 people that attended a special meeting Tuesday night about proposed education finance reform legislation to mobilize quickly, fight the bills with phone calls and email due to the “devastation” that could come to Grosse Pointe Public Schools and property values if the bills pass.
Several bills connected to drastic changes in education and education funding are expected to be voted on before Christmas by lame-duck legislators who won't be returning to office in January. The rush is on to get votes from departing Republicans, who are the best hope to pass the legislation that is the hallmark of Gov. Rick Snyder's promise to make sure that all students get a quality education and proper preparation for life after school.
“Everybody in this room needs to be frightened about what Grosse Pointe Schools will look like and what it will do to our property values,” said Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate who says the push for more charter, online, private-for-profit schools has been a failure in other states.
“The changes shouldn’t be destroying our public schools. They should be reinvesting in them,” she said.
While Grosse Pointe would not have to open its schools to all, as was originally proposed and of great concern locally, the legislation could change the make-up of the schools and strain the budget and staff with its administrative demands.
“If this becomes a reality, you will see your schools very quickly become part of the five percent” of failing schools,” Lipsitt said. “The children who are above average, have no learning challenges, are bright and gifted and superior, they can take sign language or Mandarin in Bloomfield Hills. Who will be left in the schools here? The other schools will not take them. Your schools will end up with the EAA dictating how to run your district.”
The EAA, or Education Achievement Authority, is the focus of one piece of legislation that would broaden the EAA’s power to allow it to run a statewide school system, take over failing schools and approve for-profit, charter and on-line schools.
House Bill 5923 calls for elective enrollment schools that will create a new form of charter schools with designated specialties including single gendered, on-line schools, globally competitive and internationally cultural. It also allows for specialty online schools.
"This one concerns me the most, honestly," Grosse Pointe Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Harwood told the audience. "This is for charter and online schools that draw money out of the school aid fund. And they can do it at a profit by spending less per student than the state gives them," he said
Harwood is especially disturbed by the lack of understanding by the authors of the legislation and reports backing the bills in public education and how such changes would severely disrupt districts, even when they are not consider low performers.
Another bill known as the Parental Trigger Bill would not affect Grosse Pointe Schools, "But it's something we as a community need to be aware of," Harwood said.
It would allow the lowest achieving 5 percent of schools to convert to charter schools by a valid petition signed by at least 60 percent of parents or by 51 percent of parents and 60 percent of teachers.
Another bill repeals the personal property tax mechanism for education funding that is now based on an annual student day count and replaces it with a system based on average daily membership and redistributes funding based on where a student chooses to go to school.
The most significant proposed bill is the Michigan Public Finance Act of 2013 and it is not likely to be voted on until January. It is based on a report by the Oxford Foundation of Michigan. In essence, it endorses a free market system of education and is the basis for the other bills now causing such outrage in some circles and praise in others. It supports charters run by private firms, municipalities and companies that choose to educate their employees' children.
“The Michigan Education Finance Act is a lawsuit waiting to happen…There is… no mention of special ed kids. Let me tell you they are not going to enroll students with disabilities even learning disabilities….They'll be more segregated than they have been. They’ll be left in public schools that have been drained of funding,” Lipsitt said.
“People may say they don't care about the kids. Well, care about your property values…But we should care about the kids... No matter what they are always going to be our future. You have to protect our future," Lipsitt urged.
She shared Snyder’s office number, email and implored the audience to call, write and share the rejection of a plan.
“What this legislature is trying to push through is nothing short of a mob-like mentality. This is not democracy. In Michigan right now we do not have balance in our legislature. The positive thing is the finance act won't be bantered around until January when new legislators come.”
But other bills could come as soon as today and right up to the Christmas holiday.
“Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! This is a lump of coal to every child in this state,” Lipsett closed.
The proposed changes come at a time when school districts are already working with less money due to reduced property values. If passed, the new financing method and educational approaches would open up the already shrinking pool of education funding to charter schools and online schools.
The new legislation could potentially be an dollar-draining administrative quagmire, locally and at the state level, as districts keep track of students attending in district to district or combining traditional education with on-line courses or charter schools. The staff demands could force districts to choose administrative employees over teachers.
Also of concern is that by letting students patchwork their courses in non-traditional and traditional settings, it could devalue a Grosse Pointe education and diploma.
"We do have students now who try to improve grades by taking a summer class elsewhere," Judy Gafa, school board president, said. "Currently our counselors vet these classes and right now there is only one online school is allowed to count. No other online school meets the rigors of Grosse Pointe Public Schools. If this passes we have to accept that it will decrease the rigors of our district."
Gafa was seated on a panel with Harwood and Lipsitt during the two-hour meeting at Brownell Middle School. It was sponsored by the Partnership for Different Learners.
She said she also fears the district's overall performance will decline as students who don't get a full education here will test here and bring down results.
"Our district could be held accountable… and the district gets funding withdrawn,” she said. "We control the prestige of a Grosse Pointe Schools diploma….I don't want that watered down because it means something when you apply to colleges."
Grosse Pointe Public Schools officials don't begrudge students and families in failing schools a good education. They oppose making major changes to districts doing well and turning out well-prepared students, like Grosse Pointe.
"We, as a democratic society, should be upset that kids are going every day to schools that are failing them," Harwood said. "It's not that we're against school reform.”
Cindy Pangborn, a school board trustee, attended the meeting as an observer and as a local real estate agent.
“Our concerns are so dire as to what this kind of bill will do for community and our property values,” she said. “When you lose a school system that has the prestige we have you are going to lose people. People are not going to move here…These bills do more than dampen all the hope we have for the young people in this community," Pangborn said.
She told the audience to call not only state reps and senators but mayors and council members.
“WE need to be be more grassroots. Everyone here knows 10 people…by tomorrow contact those 10 people. Tell them to call their mayors, state senators, city council members.”
Gafa asked that anyone who calls public officials convey the message, “There are better alternatives out there...Why include successful school district in this legislation? Work on the failing schools.”