Michigan State Policy—Not School Governance—Dooms State’s Poor, Segregated School Districts

Through the month of June, Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer threatened to close Benton Harbor’s high school due to falling enrollment, low test scores and the school district’s indebtedness. Benton Harbor is among Michigan’s extremely poor, majority-African American school districts on which, under former governor Rick Snyder, the state imposed emergency fiscal managers. Benton Harbor is a little different—managed by the state under a court order that ran out last week on June 30.  Governor Whitmer had threatened to close the district’s high school on June 30, but then, at the last minute, it seemed there was a deal to keep Benton Harbor’s high school from being shut down.

Then, on July 2, it was reported that the local school board said it had never agreed to the deal. And what a deal it was. The Detroit News quotes Patricia Rush, a physician and member of Benton Harbor’s local school board, who commented on why the members of the school board felt they couldn’t accept Whitmer’s deal: “Rush said the board wouldn’t agree to even a tentative deal unless the state agreed to increase funding by a minimum of $1.3 million a year so the school system could fill all its teaching positions at salaries comparable to neighboring districts… The proposal said that if the district failed to meet certain goals after a year, the board would agree to suspend operations at the high school… Residents also were angry by what they saw as the short time frame of the proposal. The pact sets benchmarks that would show whether progress is made academically and financially after a year…. But several residents said one year wasn’t enough time to show progress in a school system that has struggled for a long time… The first step of the proposed accord called for the district to meet this month with national experts who have experience turning around troubled school systems.”

In her personal blog on Wednesday of last week, Diane Ravitch published a description by Thomas Pedroni of Wayne State University of four organizations the state has approved to serve as possible consultants: the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which has managed specific schools for the Chicago Public Schools; the New Teacher Project founded by Michelle Rhee and Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp; Turnaround for Children, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, KIPP, and America’s Promise; and Education Resource Strategies, funded by the Gates and Walton Foundations, the New Teacher Project and the New Schools Venture Fund.  Pedroni comments specifically on AUSL’s record in Chicago: “AUSL… has consistently failed to reach its promised benchmarks in the schools it’s taken over in Chicago and, remarkably, has underperformed non-AUSL Chicago schools despite receiving large resource infusions from the Gates Foundation.” Pedroni adds that, according to a recent study: “the largest impact of AUSL takeover may be on the racial composition and experience level of the teaching workforce—fired teachers were disproportionately more experienced and of color.”

Pedroni does not believe any of these organizations is likely to help the district: “How Governor Whitmer’s staff came up with this short list of corporate education reform organizations for Benton Harbor Schools is unclear; but one thing is clear—the Governor is passing over the insights and recommendations she might garner from the Benton Harbor community; from educational researchers and teacher educators; from officials and researchers at the Michigan Department of Education; from rank and file teachers and their unions. Instead she is laser-focused on whoever it is from the corporate education reform world who is whispering in her ear.”

Knowing how much damage has been done to Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts under former Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency fiscal managers, I have found myself puzzled that Michigan’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer has chosen to pick this fight with the long-troubled Benton Harbor School District.  But I am far more deeply troubled now that I have read Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider’s extraordinary expose of Michigan’s school funding history as it has worked in sync with a quarter-century-old, inter-district open enrollment program called “Schools of Choice” to undermine communities like Benton Harbor.  In her Washington Post column last Wednesday, Valerie Strauss published a link to a recent “Have You Heard?” podcast with Berkshire and Schneider, an expert on educational history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  Strauss includes a transcript of the program in her column.

Berkshire, Schneider, and their guests explain that Michigan public policy has been a primary cause of fiscal problems in school districts like Benton Harbor. Michigan encourages families to leave their home school districts to choose a school in another school district through inter-district open enrollment, but at the same time, the school funding system sends all the student’s state and local school funding along with the student when he or she leaves. Berkshire and Schneider and their guests explain that Benton Harbor is only the latest of a number of Michigan districts which have lost enough money to undermine their solvency. You will have to listen to the podcast or read the transcript to learn how all this has affected Detroit, Clintondale, Ypsilanti, Saginaw, and Saginaw’s neighbor, tiny Buena Vista: “Just a few miles down the road is a town called Buena Vista. It’s a lot like Saginaw, majority African American, majority low income. But there’s one big difference: Buena Vista no longer has public schools. A few years ago, the state took over the district and dissolved it.”

Berkshire and Schneider interview David Arnsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, who explains how inter-district public school choice bankrupts the state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and the students who are not active choosers… (W)hen the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student.  The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs. And so that means for the students left behind, that means that the districts losing students to Schools of Choice and… charter schools have to either cut back their services for those students left behind or draw down their fund balances. Usually they do both.”

Berkshire adds: “And the state imposed that new framework on top of a system where students were deeply segregated by race and income.”

Arnsen responds: “In every case they (the districts that lose students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children, and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue to both inter-district choice (public school open enrollment) and charter schools.”

Early in the podcast Schneider explains how inter-district open enrollment works: “(T)his is students and families in one district enrolling in schools in another district.  Now, this may sound totally innocuous on its surface… But there are also some things to be really concerned about here, you know.  I think first and foremost is the fact that some families are going to have better access to resources like transportation as well as information and are going to be the first to opt out of their existing districts, which is going to leave their previous districts poorer and probably more segregated, as a result, potentially trapping the most vulnerable students in those districts.”

Kathy Stewart, an intermediate school district superintendent in Saginaw County explains: “The state promotes and markets it as Schools of Choice for all families, all children, all parents.  One of the dynamics of Schools of Choice, though, is that districts do not offer transportation into their district.  So it is those families that have the transportation that wished to access another school district that had the means to get their children there every year, every day.”

But the problem is deeper. Berkshire explains that our society’s use of test scores as the sole yardstick for measuring the quality of a school district further complicates inter-district school choice: “Michigan’s education marketplace relies on test scores as its currency… So in order to sell its success, Saginaw also has to overcome perceptions about the city and its schools.”

Ramont Roberts, Saginaw Superintendent, explains the problem further: “Generally speaking, parents make choices about schools based on class.  And so when you add those elements to it, parents are left trying to choose not their local school district, but what they perceived to be a better education, which is not always the case.  And so when you ignore factors that impact achievement in certain school districts and you don’t want to account for those, and then you highlight achievement as being a measure of how a school district is doing and you use that to base choice policies on or highlight choice policies to parents, then it’s a recipe for disaster.”

One of the guests, Naisha Clark Young calls the Schools of Choice cross-district open enrollment program “a dead-end cycle.”  Jack Schneider calls it “a race to the bottom” for vulnerable school districts which fall farther and farther behind.

And so we return to Benton Harbor and a quick review of the conditions causing Governor Whitmer to propose the closure of its high school. In mid-June, the Detroit NewsJennifer Chambers reviewed the problems: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor. In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high school.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Chambers explains that many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

Public school inter-district open enrollment, exemplified by Michigan’s Schools of Choice program is supposed to give families more options.  But instead it launches a competition among school districts.  As Berkshire, Schneider and their guests explain, competitions always have losers as well as winners.  In Michigan, the poorest and most segregated school districts—places like the now-closed Buena Vista school district and Benton Harbor, which is currently under siege—are the losers. Justice cannot be achieved through competition.

Wayne State University’s Thomas Pedroni summarizes the structural racism at the heart of Michigan’s public education policy: “School districts in Michigan continue to be funded through the mechanisms established in 1994’s Proposal A, which monetized children.  Schools of choice and charter school legislation introduced a system in which surrounding districts and charter schools were given a strong financial incentive to draw students away from the mostly African American, low-income and under-resourced districts…  Whitmer… should recognize what predominantly African American communities across the state already know: That while one can always find examples of poor local management (in both rich and poor districts), it is state educational policies that will continue to grind down and destabilize even the best-managed low-income, predominantly African American districts across our state.”

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