A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION: MANISTEE COUNTY REPUBLICANS: The many government influences on local education

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the next installment in a monthly series that will pose a question or topic chosen by managing editor Michelle Graves, with responses presented by members of the Manistee County Democratic and Republican parties. The author is chosen by the respective party and may change from month to month. Columns will be published on the last week of each month. This month’s topic is affordable housing. Writers were asked to respond to the following:  Everyone agrees the children are our future, and their education is most important. But many disagree on how best to go about providing that education. Each school district elects its own board, the State of Michigan elects a board and the U.S. Department of Education oversees all of that. Are all three entities necessary? How much control should each have over students’ curriculum and assessment?

Dr. RICHARD ZEILE
Guest Columnist

Imagine three chefs making broth; each agrees that salt is necessary, but we end up with three times as much salt as needed. One puts in chicken extract, another puts in beef; this is not a recipe for success. Yet this is the process we face in making public education with many “chefs” in on the process, and no one in overall control.

In Michigan, as in all the states, public education is a state responsibility administered by local districts. Many are surprised to realize that the state has the authority to create and dissolve districts as has been demonstrated recently with the Buena Vista and Inkster districts. Originally each district determined what they wished to pay in taxes and this led to great disparities in district income and in per-pupil funding. The 1994 Prop A restructured funding so that now 80% of districts receive between $7,100 and $7,400 per pupil, through a state tuition grant funded mostly by state revenues, sales tax yielding roughly 30%, and the lottery about 4%. Other district income averages about $1300 per pupil coming from government grants and other sources, including $800 from Federal sources, the rest from local property tax and state grants. Prior to 1994, local districts paid three quarters of their district costs and had considerable influence. Now, that proportion is more than reversed, and money from state and federal sources have various strings attached.

The US Department of Education was first established in 1979, but its precedents go back to Andrew Johnson who signed a 4-person department into law during Reconstruction. It was separated out from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, and now has a $3 billion+ budget. This represents in many situations a case of citizens sending their money to Washington and receiving a portion back with strings attached. Currently, about half of the people working in Michigan’s Department of Education are paid for out of federal grant money and can only do what the grant guidelines allow. This is the mechanism by which local initiative gradually fades before federal influence.

Various attempts have been made to use federal influence to re-align American education. Notably, the Obama administration tied Race to the Top funding eligibility to adopting the Common Core State Standards for math and English. This led to the charge that the federal government was attempting to take over local education. Much has been said about Common Core that is untrue, but it certainly is a symptom of the desire to use federal influence via the purse strings to shape state and local education policy. It worked in Michigan. In 2008, the Democrat-controlled legislature, in cooperation with Governor Jennifer Granholm, adopted Common Core without approval of the State Board of Education because, although Democrats had a majority on the Board, they could get a quorum that January, and eventually adopted it the following summer, months after the legislative fiat.

And the Department of Education is not the only Federal agency that impacts local public education. Federal courts have attempted to remedy many problems by interfering with state education. Anyone remember busing? A federal district court in 1971 ordered the adoption of a desegregation plan that encompassed eighty-five outlying school districts. Although upheld by the federal appeals court, the Supreme Court in 1974 held in Milliken V. Bradley in a 5-4 decision that only the district guilty of segregation (Detroit) could be required to bus students. It is commonly held that this had the effect of causing Detroit Public Schools to lose the remaining 30% of white students making Detroit one of the least integrated districts in the Tri-county area. Good intentions can lead to dysfunctional results. Perhaps the greatest damage done to school districts is not the outcome of certain decisions, but the uncertainty that hung over the 85 school districts, and their students’ families, for three years.

It is tempting to cede responsibility to pay, and responsibility for results to far away experts while we complain about how helpless we are. But America’s heritage of freedom is found not in passive reliance on big government, but in local initiative where communities of shared values work for schools that reflect those values, whether in homeschooling, private schools, or our great local schools responsive to the community rather than to a bureaucracy. We should support education policy (and policy makers) that work to secure local freedom and responsibility.

 

Dr. Richard Zeile, “Dr. Z,” served on the State Board of Education for eight years, the last two as co-president, and was active in the National Association of State Boards of Education as board member. He taught for many years in Detroit and helped organize a successful charter school. He summers in Onekama and serves as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Taylor, and Speaker on Detroit radio’s Martin Luther’s Evening Prayer.

 

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