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