Privatization and School Closing Trends in Michigan
by Sylvia McCullough
The notice of increased funding for Michigan’s K-12 education system by Gov. Rick Snyder is a peanut toss designed to draw attention away from the fact that Republican legislators are aggressively planning to continue pushing forward their efforts to privatize K-12 education by funneling taxpayer money into unaccountable charter and religious schools, coupled with school closings slated to escalate at alarming rates in the coming year.
While Snyder’s new budget proposals won’t be refused by Michigan school districts, they are woefully inadequate based on local need and the cuts that have already been enacted. The bill does nothing to decrease the income disparities between wealthy school districts like Birmingham, who receive roughly $4,400 more per student, or $11,911 than do Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) which receives $7,511 per student per year. (Editorial, ‘Snyder’s school funding proposal no magic bullet,’ Traverse City Record Eagle, Feb 10, 2017).
This proposed budget income boost for K-12, in my opinion thinly masks the closing of 38 schools slated for 2017, suggested by Michigan School Reform Officer (SRO), Natasha Baker, who plans to push ahead with the closures, half of which are in the Detroit area. Detroit has already experienced the closing of 150 schools! For the first time, these new school closings will be accomplished due to ‘under-performance of academic guidelines.’ Baker explained that if “closing a school would create an unreasonable hardship for students” they would not be closed. That said, Baker does not consider that having a parent transport a child 40 miles away from home to another school constitutes hardship even though these parents and children reside in some of the poorest areas of Detroit who have neither the means nor the time to do so. Rather than have the State support low performing schools to boost performance, they will simple be closed. (Brian McVicar, ‘State defends plan placing 38 Mi. schools at risk of closure,’ Feb 9, 2017, http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/02/school_reform_office_defends_p.html.)
There is a growing backlash to these proposed school closings as evidenced by Michigan Democrats in the legislature who are asking Gov. Snyder to halt such efforts sighting damage to students and communities http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/0/21/congressional-dems-snyder-stop-school-closures/98211408/ , and opposition by parents and the Detroit School Board who are threatening to sue the State to stop the closures http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/02/21/congressional-dems-snyder-stop-school-closures/98211408/ .
With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Republicans have begun their move toward privatization of public education with the introduction of HR 610 by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, on Jan 23, 2017, which would distribute federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students in addition to repealing the No Hungry Kid Act established by the Obama administration that established certain nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. (In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children's nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.)” https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/610 .
While this bill at present resides in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, there can be no doubt that it is the beginning of DeVos’s intent to move toward government funding of charter and private schools, including religious educational institutions. Why Republicans would wish to include defunding of government mandated nutritional standards in public schools while at the same time directing taxpayer dollars away from public schools is as mystifying as it is callous and potentially harmful to students.
As the controversy swirls around privatization of public education, it may be worthwhile for readers to check into two new books reviewed recently by Diane Ravitch, (The New York Review of Books, December 8, 2016, Vol LXIII, No. 19, pp. 58-61) by Samuel E. Abrams, Education and the Commercial Mindset, and the other, School Choice: The End of Public Education written by Mercedes K. Schneider. Taken together, the authors demonstrate that “there is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education,” and that the motivation toward such trends is not to benefit poor students in failing schools, but simply greed, stating that “charters [and by extension private schools] can be a very profitable business.”
As these authors point out, while the public up to now has been focused on defeating school millages put forward by school districts in an effort to close the gap created by decreased state funding, which are seen as egregious tax burdens, they have remained largely in the dark regarding the consequences of K-12 defunding and school closures until they hit their communities by which time it is too late, exampled by the closing of three schools here in Grand Traverse County in 2016. It is however, not too late to stem the tide as parents and citizens concerned about quality public education, begin to educate themselves, and put pressure on their elected officials to begin a program of full funding of their public schools and to demand equal government oversight of all K-12 education, public and private.
Sylvia McCullough is the Content Editor and Chair of the Outreach/Content Subcommittee of the Grand Traverse Democratic Party’s Communications Committee.