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Strong Words and Warning from Grosse Pointe Schools Superintendent

Thomas Harwood says pending state legislation is a serious threat to Grosse Pointe schools and the community.

Grosse Pointe Schools Superitendent, Thomas Harwood, is issuing a "wake-up call" to parents and taxpayers in the community, saying that legislation pending in Lansing could "dramatically change the landscape of our school system and our day to day livelihoods," like nothing he's seen in 26 years of working in education.

"I do strongly recommend you pay attention," Harwood said.

His comments came at Monday's school board meeting during his regular update, but this update, he said, has more urgency than any other, and the legislation, which could be passed in coming weeks by a lame duck legislature, more ramifications than any other. 

Essentially the proposed house and senate bills will broaden the definition of a what a public school is and how it is run and funded, in part by letting students and families decide where to spend their state's per pupil funding.

It will drastically increase the types of schools that students can attend by authorizing online schools, charter schools such as single gender, boarding and international. The legislation would also allow students to piece together an education by attending schools in different districts in the same school year in order to take the courses or have the teacher or school setting they desire. It also endorses year-round schools. What it does not do is force schools to open enrollment to any and all, whether residents of the district or not.

If passed, the legislation, which was proposed in September and is the product of a promise by Gov. Rick Snyder to address disparity in public education, a disparity that can have detrimental effects on the economy and society. The goal of the reform, which is basically an revision of the state education code, is to even the playing field in education so that good schools are available to all rather than to students from the most affluent communities.

Harwood said the legislation, as proposed, drains funding from schools and redirects it to corporations and business interests. It also takes away local control and would be an unwieldy, logistical nightmare for districts in terms of planning for enrollment, funding and more. 

Overall, he said, the legislation amounts to a voucher system, vouchers long being a dirty word in education reform for some. The proposed legislation is backed by a report and the Michigan Education Finance Act of 2013 written by the Oxford Foundation-Michigan.

"The bill is written by Richard McClellan on behalf of Gov. Snyder,"  Harwood said. "We'll hear his name a lot in the coming years…

They haven't used the term voucher yet in their description, but…but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck. it's a duck.

"It's a voucher," Harwood said.

For Grosse Pointe it means risking the loss of students, the loss of state funding and of competing against schools held to different set of standards, Harwood said. Already, opposition in Grosse Pointe has given rise to more than 300 people committing to the Grosse Pointe Legislative Action Network.  Similar groups have formed in cities with schools comparable to Grosse Pointe's.

A public forum on the pending legislation will be at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Brownell Middle School. There will be a presentation and a question and answer session led by Dr. Harwood, School Board president Judy Gafa and Marcie Lipsitt, a public education advocate in Lansing.

"In my 26 years of working in the field of education…this is unprecedented…in regards to legislation pushing through reform bills. These reform bills seem to be in the interest of politics. It will dramatically affect what we do here in Grosse Pointe schools.

"It is a wake up call…We need to be wide awake and be very vocal. My fear is that the voices of those in public education will not be heard."

Board trustee Tom Jakubiec said he disagrees with the rush to shoot down the legislation. He said he hopes everyone will read the legislation and the Oxford Report that is is based on to get a full understanding, a bigger picture of the purpose of the legislation.

"I take a slightly different view…When you look at the state level with so many schools failing…something has to be done..if you get the chance to read through the Oxford Report think about how does it change the paradigm of students being locked in a failing school to getting opportunities," he said. 

"Just take a good look understand what the intent was.

"I know sometimes it's hard to do when we're in a successful school district…There are so many schools that are less than successful and so many families that can't afford to go to private schools. I'm not afraid of the competition. I think we'll be able to remain successful."

He said he doesn't share the superintendent's strong opposition. "I think there is an opportunity in making some changes."

Board President Judy Gafa said she was very concerned about the Oxford Foundation Report and disconcerted at not knowing who's on the committee behind it.

She said research on other states with similar approaches found that graduation rates remained flat or declined. In Colorado, she said, after cyber schools were introduced drop out rates increased.

"I'm not saying there isn't help we need to give," she said. "I am a strong believer in community based schools and I believe this plan is out to destroy our community based schools."

She said there are other states to look to, states that have seen drastic improvement with much less interferences. Specifically, she said, New York and Tennessee have "reversed drop out rates at drop out factory schools."

"I'm not opposed to helping failing school districts," she said. "But there are better plans."

To see the legislation and Oxford Plan, go to http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2011-2012/billintroduced/House/pdf/2012-HIB-5923.pdf, http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2011-2012/billintroduced/Senate/pdf/2012-SIB-1358.pdf

Chris K December 05, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Education Week will be sponsoring a WEBINAR next week about on-line learning in a school district in Oregon. You might want to see what they will discuss. Wonder what the unemployment rate is in Oregon? Meeting Students Where and When They Need It—A District-Wide Approach to Online Learning Students are not solely in the classroom anymore. Many are juggling careers, extracurricular activities, or even family life. Addressing the needs of individual students in a lightning-fast world—where multi-tasking is the norm—is critical to their success. Bend-La Pine school district in Oregon is doing just that. Having served 1,400 students annually for the past two years, and hundreds annually before that, and boasting an average pass-rate for original credit courses of 91% each year, Bend-La Pine has fine-tuned their online learning programs to meet the many and varied needs of students across the district, including: How to use online learning to help balance student schedules How to monitoring student progress carefully to stay on track How to involve parents to keep them aware of their child’s achievement or problem areas Lessons learned from launching a Virtual School Program
Hasta December 05, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Private equity investing in for-profit education is soaring and for-profit education is one of the largest U.S. investment markets, currently topping $1.3 trillion in value. So 2013, and beyond, will see numerous for-profit companies making inroads into public and non-profit education by taking over large swaths of the market. What’s more, they’ll prosper in the corporate training and continuing education marketplace as well. Consider -- The entire education sector now represents nearly 9 percent of the U.S. GDP. Merger and acquisition activity in for-profit education last year surpassed activity at the peak of the Internet boom. More and more non-profit colleges are hitting the wall and seeking investors to help them transform into for-profit institutions. You’ll learn how to achieve investment success in this education revolution when you attend The Capital Roundtable’s ENCORE conference — “Private Equity Investing in For-Profit Education Companies,” being held in New York City on Tuesday, January 15. Serving as chair of this ENCORE conference on Tuesday, January 15, in New York, is Harold Levy, former Chancellor of the New York City School System and now managing director at Palm Ventures in Greenwich, Conn.
Wendy December 05, 2012 at 02:30 PM
The unemployment rate in Oregon is 8.7%, which is almost a full percentage point above the national average. In rural areas, it's much worse. By the way, who is watching these children when they take online classes? Do parents need to stay home, and not enter the workforce, so their children can attend school online? Also, you say that online schools are necessary for the "multi-tasking" norm of today's world. Are you suggesting that children should be working during the day while juggling online school in their free time? Are they limiting online school to older children, who can enter the workforce? No, they aren't. Are elementary students supposed to be juggling online courses and home tasks, instead of learning how to listen to teachers, stay on task, and learn appropriate conversation skills with peers and adults? Bad idea if we want an effective workforce in the future. This is a bad idea.
Chris K December 05, 2012 at 04:54 PM
Wendy: to be fair the unemployment rate in Michigan is 9.3%. The comments are not original, they were copied exactly from the Education Week announcement of the webinar they are sponsoring. Education Week is known as the American Education News Site of Record. I suspect a lot of educators consult this medium. I can't explain why Education Week is offering a webinar about how a k-12 school district handles on-line education nor why they chose the wording they have to describe the benefits to those who participate in the seminar. I merely point out that in some parts of the country, apparently, on line learning is happening and I would also point out that one of the topics covered is: "How to involve parents to keep them aware of their child's achievement or problem areas". I guess if educators across the nation were so opposed to on-line learning and teaching there would be no need to provide webinars on the topic.
Wendy December 05, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Chris K, the Bend-La Pine online offerings are radically different than what is included in the legislative proposal. Bend-La Pine is in a mountainous tourist area. It offers online courses as a supplement to its regular school system for high school and remedial help. The Bend-La Pine program is run through its school district to meet the unique needs of its students. This is entirely different than what the Snyder package proposes, which is to allow students to take online courses across the state. Other school districts offering online classes can take our tax dollars away from our district. Not only can this cause a financial hit and a budgetary nightmare, but it also can dilute the quality of a diploma from a grosse pointe school. A student can graduate from our schools, but take online classes from whatever district he or she chooses. We will lose control over the arc of that child's education. Bend La-Pine still has that control over both education and funding, and it only allows the child online learning opportunities based on the district's approval and monitoring.

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