By Linda Headley, Affiliated Consultant

This Advisor provides a summary of the 1995 education policy priorities of key education policy makers and opinions leaders.

Introduction

During the last two years Michigan’s education system has undergone significant change. In mid1993 the legislature dramatically overhauled the K–12 funding system, essentially eliminating the use of the local property tax to fund schools. Later that year the legislature made sweeping changes to the School Code, including a mandatory core curriculum, site-based decision making, new academic performance standards, and accreditation requirements. In early 1994 educators watched as the legislature passed a new funding system for schools and waited to see if voters would approve an increase in the state sales tax to which the funding initiative was tied. And, throughout 1994, the education community was involved not only in heated legislative debate but also in court deliberations over the state’s new charter school law.

With so many changes in the previous two years, educators probably are wondering what 1995 holds in store. To find out, between December 8, 1994, and January 5, 1995, Public Sector Consultants interviewed the following key education opinion leaders and policy makers to learn what their top priorities are for improving the quality of education in the new year: Robert Schiller, Superintendent of Public Instruction; Sen. Leon Stille (R), Chair of the Senate Education Committee; Rep. William Bryant, Jr. (R), chair of the House Education Committee; Rep. Jim Agee (D), House Education Committee member; Jerry Keidel, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators; Justin King, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of School Boards; and Beverly Wolkow, Executive Director of the Michigan Education Association. Information on Governor Engler’s priorities has been gleaned from his recent State of the State address.

Following is a summary of what we learned from these individuals about their education priorities for 1995. It is important to note that, at the time of the interviews, the groups these individuals represent had not formalized their policy agendas; therefore, the views expressed should be considered those of the individuals and their “best guesses” as to what initiatives they will be working on during the new year.

The Top Education Priorities for 1995

Governor John Engler

In his State of the State address, Governor Engler prefaced his comments about education by saying that the state needs to think about the system in terms of liberty, excellence, and accountability—as he explains, “liberty for parents to send their children to schools they deem the best; excellence in the curricula, in the teaching, and in the classroom; and accountability to the taxpayers, to the employers of our graduates, and ultimately to the students.”

Although little detail was provided, the governor did mention several specific initiatives he was planning to introduce. First, he requested that the State Board of Education “examine the Department of Education from top to bottom.” He indicated that he wants the department to act more as a partner with schools instead of as their taskmaster. “The core mission,” he said, “must be to serve and support parents who want to choose what is best for their kids.”

He then went on to say that the board should terminate any functions within the department that did not specifically address that mission. For example, the governor noted that he plans to transfer the responsibility for all financial aid for college students from the Department of Education to the Department of Treasury. This initiative is in keeping with the governor’s commitment to downsizing state government.

In a dramatic move, Engler also announced his intention to repeal the School Code, which was overhauled in 1993. In place of the code, the governor would like to see a “local Education Code that maintains accountability, but puts parents back in charge.” As he explains, “It’s time to stop controlling education from Lansing or Washington. It’s time to start transferring full authority to parents and the schools they pay for.” With numerous questions arising about state versus local control, this statement makes clear where the administration stands on the issue.

Another new direction in which the governor would like the education system to move is to provide more real options for children in the types of schools from which they can choose. Specifically, he hopes to “use the charter school law to open at least three skilled trade academies by next fall . . . and ten trade academies within the next four years.”

His rationale is that current schools are not doing a good enough job training students for the jobs that are available. For example, he quotes David Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, as saying that by the end of the decade some 100,000 new skilled workers will be needed in the state’s automotive industry. “Our choice is stark,” the governor explains. “We either train young people in Michigan today or we lose jobs in Michigan tomorrow. It is that simple.”

During the election campaign, Governor Engler also said that he planned to seek legislation to create penalties for parents who allow children under the age of 16 to become truants. And, he said he would like to see the Michigan Information Network fully implemented so that schools could use the latest technological developments to enhance learning.

Robert Schiller, Superintendent of Public Instruction

According to Superintendent Schiller, his and the Department of Education’s priorities for 1995 will be implementing the laws passed during the previous two years. The first issue Schiller hopes to tackle is the mandatory core curriculum.

By 1997 schools will be required to align their curriculum with the learning objectives set by the State Board of Education and the legislature. “Once the state identifies clearly, as we have, the learning objectives in math, science, reading, writing, and social studies,” says Schiller, “they will drive the rest of the system.”

Schiller notes that this is a major change from the past. “In our state we have never had this kind of a centralized view of expectations for schooling and for all students. So, the very notion of moving away from guidelines and recommendations to identifying a basic learning core is a major initiative.”

Schiller also is excited about the state’s move to increase accountability, particularly through changes in the assessment program. For example, the new High School Proficiency Test, which students must pass to receive a state-endorsed diploma, will become a major part of Michigan’s assessment program and will include a heavy emphasis on writing skills. “Before in the state we have never emphasized, nor have we tested, a student’s ability to write. Now we are centering the entire assessment program, not only around writing in general, but also around a student’s ability to write his or her answers and [describe] how he or she arrived at them in areas such as math and science.”

Schiller believes that the change in emphasis will dramatically drive improvement. “Often what you test is what you are going to find taught. [In that way] the assessment program is the major policy lever we have in the state to effect change.” To demonstrate how the new test works, the Department of Education recently administered it to a group of media professionals, and it has invited other groups, such as lawmakers, to take the test as well.

The third priority for Schiller and the department relates to accreditation. “This winter we will begin the actual evaluation, ranking, and accreditation of each school,” says Schiller. “The standards being used will measure the extent to which schools are in compliance with the laws passed last year as well as how well students . . . have done over the last three years on state tests. This accreditation program, along with the assessment program and the core curriculum, all speak to the setting . . . of standards and expectations for schools, measuring them, and reporting [the results] to the public.” Schiller believes these initiatives, in combination, hold considerable promise for change.

Finally, the fourth priority for Schiller will be opening up options for “who” provides education. “Traditionally, the ‘who’ has been the identified public school domain . . . the recognized 3,500 public schools and 560 school districts. Well, now that domain is being opened up to allow other entities to participate in the education process. In this case, our state has chosen charter schools.” Schiller explains that the need for more options springs, in part, from the perception that change within the traditional school system is not happening quickly enough or in the right way.

Senator Leon Stille

Senator Stille, the new Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee and a former teacher, says, up front, that he did not pursue the chairmanship of the committee and, therefore, does not yet have a planned agenda for 1995. He does, however, have several areas that he would like to see the Senate work on.

Like others, Stille believes that funding for education will “continue to be a hot topic.” He expects that the legislature will have to answer many questions about the package passed last year, including whether the funding currently allocated is adequate and will be sufficient to meet longer-term education needs.

Senator Stille also plans to introduce his own bill to redistrict intermediate school districts(ISD). “Currently, we have 57 districts with no particular commonality among them in size.” He provides as an example a comparison between his district’s ISD, which has 4,000 students, and one in Wayne County that has considerably more. “The [ISDs] vary in size dramatically and yet they are charged with the same responsibilities.” Stille believes that the Senate will be looking at equalizing the ISDs, and he plans to reintroduce his bill from last session to start the process.

Another issue of great importance to Senator Stille is the role of higher education institutions in K–12 education. “I think there is a great opportunity here for us to utilize the four-year schools, the community colleges, and maybe even some of the private colleges for the delivery of K–12 education.” Stille is particularly excited about using a combination of technology and the intellectual resources of the states colleges and universities to expand educational offerings. “As you look to sparsely populated areas, the offerings for students are much more limited than in our metropolitan areas. But, if you have access to electronically delivered subject matter, whether a kid is being schooled at home, in a charter school, or in a public school, I think we can increase educational opportunities tremendously.” Stille is so serious about this “pet project,” as he calls it, that he has already developed a model that redraws the boundaries of the state’s ISDs so that at least one higher education institution is included in each district.

Local control is another issue that is of great interest and concern to the senator. “We are continually being challenged as to what is local control and what is state [control],” says Stille, “and it is a very fine line. I tend to [lean toward] leaving as much as possible in the hands of the local districts.” Stille agrees that the state can and should play a role in creating standards, but he prefers to talk about guidelines instead of mandates. “It really becomes a delicate proposition when you are dealing with control issues.” Thus, one can expect to find Stille questioning any new requirements being placed on schools and school districts.

Representative William Bryant, Jr.

On the Republican side of the aisle in the state House of Representatives, Rep. William Bryant highlighted several issues. For example, Bryant expects continued debate about the mandatory core curriculum. “I think there will be considerable concern coming from a variety of directions about whether [the state] should stick with the language that was put in P.A. 335 about the mandated core curriculum, or whether we should abandon it, and, if we are going to keep it, what it should look like.” Bryant anticipates “attacks on it from the religious right,” and from those who are concerned about other issues, such as local control and multiculturalism. He also expects that, if the state moves forward with the mandated core curriculum without corresponding state funding, there will be considerable concern about ending up in court over Headlee amendment issues.

Another topic that Bryant would like to see the Republican caucus focus on is career education and school-to-job initiatives. “A core curriculum could be dangerous if we pretend that everyone is going to go to college.” For that reason, Bryant wants to ensure that students have sufficient opportunities during school to explore a variety of work and career options. By that he does not mean “putting kids in some glorified shop class all the way through school. I think that having cooperative programs, having mentor relationships, and keeping up to date on career areas—what careers are going to be available, what they will look like, and what the demand will be—is important and totally consistent with the national movement for systemic reform.”

Bryant also believes that the caucus “may want to seriously explore whether or not it should change mandatory special education in some way.” The primary issue would probably be whether to cover those age 21 to 25.

On a somewhat similar note, Representative Bryant says he would like to continue working on the issue of braille literacy. Last session he “supported a bill that would have presumed that legally blind children should be taught braille in addition to other reading alternatives.” The leaders of the blind community, however, were not receptive to the legislation, which they felt did not go far enough.

Last, but certainly not least, Bryant believes that the top priority of the caucus will be to enact the governor’s priorities. “This election was his more than anybody else’s. If anybody has a mandate around here, it certainly is not [the House Republicans] with 56 members. I would not expect him to look any different than he did during the first four years, but I am sure he will have some education initiatives, like repealing unnecessary portions of the School Code, to which we will need to pay close attention.”

One change that Representative Bryant would like to see is more interaction between the governor and the legislature during the early stages of policy development. “One thing that we might hope for from John, having come from the legislature, is that he might involve [us] more in the formulation of policy. It isn’t that he hasn’t welcomed [input], but he has not created any mechanisms or structures for it.”

Representative Jim Agee

Representative Agee expects that he and the House Democrats will focus their energies on four major issues: funding, charter schools, establishing standards, and defining curriculum. With regard to funding, Representative Agee believes there will be “a major push from both sides” to determine how the state will guarantee the basic funding grant ($5,000 per pupil) promised in Public Act (P.A.) 336.

While several approaches have been discussed, Agee would like to see the state earmark a portion of the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund (BSF) to guarantee the grant. “I had a proposal that would have taken $100 million from the BSF and set up a School Aid Stabilization Fund that could be used only if, from one year to the next, the increase in the basic grant did not keep pace with the rate of inflation.” This proposal did not have sufficient support last year, but Agee intends to introduce it again in early 1995.

Representative Agee also believes that charter schools will be revisited right away. “I am sure that the proponents of charter schools being a competitive force . . . are probably not happy with the law we wrote, so I assume there is going to be an attempt to change it.”

How the debate over charter schools will be resolved, says Agee, depends on your philosophical view of them. “If you look at charter schools as experimental schools—and an experiment to me is something that is controlled and rather small in scope and nature—then let’s have all of them be different, let’s waive a lot of restrictions, and let’s allow them to go off in different directions. If, however, charter schools and public schools are going to compete, and you are going to let charter schools go off in one direction, then you have to allow public schools the same flexibility, otherwise you do not have competition.”

Agee notes with irony that the push for granting charter schools more flexibility, which many believe is necessary for success, runs directly counter to what the legislature has been doing with public schools by increasing mandatory reform measures.

Another issue that Representative Agee believes will be of concern in the upcoming year issetting standards and defining the curriculum. “The direction I would like to see us go in is to look more at establishing standards—that is, what we expect all young people in Michigan to meet—defining what those are, and then giving schools the task of accomplishing them. If you look at successful school systems around the nation, those with a defined curriculum and clear standards seem to be the ones that are most successful.” For that reason, Agee would like to revisit the standards and core curriculum issues addressed in previous years.

On a more personal note, Agee also believes that Michigan needs “some sort of glue to hold all this stuff together. If you talk about adding to the bureaucracy, that is not a very popular approach. However, I do believe that when you look at all of the reform efforts we [have passed], we need something that will pull them together and help them make sense.”

What Agee proposes is bringing in a small group of national and state experts to help determine how the different reform measures relate to and will affect one another. Agee bases this desire on 30 years of experience in the education system. “When I was chair of the School Improvement Council, and we began to implement all of these [reform measures], I asked, ‘How are we going to know what cured things and what killed things? We’re supposed to be scientists and be able to measure results, but if we try all of these things at once, how will we know which ones caused improvement and which ones made things worse?’ I think without something like this, without some glue, education reform is going to have a hard time in Michigan and it is going to be very scattered.”

Jerry Keidel, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators (MASA)

Jerry Keidel, like others, believes that the most important priority in 1995 will be to earmarkfunds so the basic $5,000-per-student grant can be met. “Right now, only 80 percent of the dollars needed to fund the foundation grant are earmarked. The increase in the state sales tax along with the local property tax that remains will not generate enough [money] to fully fund the formula that is in place.” For that reason, Keidel says, education organizations and school districts will work to ensure that sufficient funds are earmarked for education.

Fully incorporating technology into the classroom is another priority on which the MASA will focus its efforts. As Keidel says, “organizationally, schools are going to have to look at using technology not merely to supplement the teacher’s efforts, but as one of the primary vehicles through which education takes place. It has to become a real part of the delivery system.”

Keidel sees the greater use of technology as a way to make education “less labor intensive, bring more students in contact with the best teachers,” and a tool for true reform. “We have changed the way schools are funded, we have changed some aspects of the collective bargaining law, and we have changed the tenure law all within the last year and one-half. If, however, in the very end . . . schools continue to be alike and look the same, then we have not had reform.” Keidel believes strongly that technology, if used to its fullest extent, can help bring about true reform.

Another issue on which Keidel expects further debate and study is accreditation. “Right now we have an interim step where the Department of Education will be identifying districts in need of assistance.” But after that, Keidel notes, decisions will have to be made about how to provide funds for assistance, what types of assistance are needed, and how to develop an accurate, authentic assessment method to determine which schools should be accredited. Keidel believes there will be “a lot of debate and discussion about what factors should [be considered] for accreditation, how they should be measured, and what schools should and should not be held accountable for.”

MASA’s executive director also believes that schools will have to start playing a greater role in the debate about health care. “I think that school districts . . . are going to be looking at health care costs—how they can be controlled and how care can be administered—not only from the perspective of paying for their own employees but also for dealing with the hundreds of thousands of students in need of medical attention.”

When asked what role he expects schools to play, Keidel says, “in many communities, schools can provide a forum, a gathering place, in which these kinds of discussions can take place. In other areas, particularly in disadvantaged ones, schools may be the only spokespeople or advocates for kids who need care.” While this is not a priority in legislative terms, health care is something that Keidel believes schools will have to be prepared to take a larger role in and grapple with in the very near future.

Keidel also has some innovative ideas about conducting cost/benefit analyses on all education mandates; he maintains that conducting such analyses might lead to a clearer understanding of what the proper role of schools should be. “We get involved in some things that are strictly for convenience. The best example I can think of would be driver education, which is mandated by the state but not fully funded, so school districts have to pick up the cost.”

Keidel contends that most people believe that driver education has little or no real educational benefit and that it has little to do with a school’s mission; yet, schools are required by law to provide and fund the service. Keidel suggests that a cost/benefit analysis might lead to a decision to privatize driver education or to allow school districts to charge for the service. But, he argues, “to provide it at a cost to the taxpayers and, specifically, to fund it from a finite amount of dollars for education, is ludicrous.”

Justin King, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB)

Justin King believes that the number one priority of his organization in 1995 is to “get the financing of schools back under control.” Like others, King is concerned because of the failure to earmark sufficient funds to meet the basic grant promised in P.A. 336. “We know we are going to face others who do not want that to happen because every dollar you take and put toward education is a dollar that is not available for something else. We know that going in, but it still is going to be our number one priority.”

King also is concerned about the financing package because it may not adequately address equity concerns. “New Jersey recently had another court decision in which they said, ‘Go back to the drawing board, you are not providing equal opportunity because the gap [in per-student funding levels] is too great.’ The gap there is something like $1,500 or $2,000, and we are a long way away from that.” The funding gap in Michigan is often much larger. Therefore, King believes there will be continued discussion and debate in Michigan about equity in financing.

King also believes that charter schools will continue to be an issue. “We passed a resolution supporting charter schools, but we believe that the chartering entities ought to be either K–12 or intermediate school districts.” King is concerned that if colleges and universities charter schools (as current law allows), there is danger of creating an “elitist system.” If a university is the chartering entity, he asks, “who is going to be able to apply? Who can afford the time to take their children to the campus every day and pick them up? You know the answer to that question.”

Another concern King has about charter schools is the issue of competition. Like Representative Agee, he believes that “if you are going to release restrictions on charter schools because you think that will allow them to be better, then you ought to do it for everyone.”

King also is up front about the fact that his organization would like to see teacher tenurerepealed, although he said the MASB will not go out and push for it. “We are not going to throw it up front because there are too many other things that we need to be talking about. But, our feeling is that there should be a fair dismissal law in place of [the tenure act]. It should supply procedural safeguards—which we believe are very important—but it should not cause [school districts] to run up bills of up to $100,000 and take four or five years to dismiss someone . . ..”

Another issue of concern to King and his organization is that of local control. “For years, school board associations have been thrown in with the educational community,” he says, “and I believe we are different in one major way: Above and beyond everything else, we support local decision making, so anything where either the federal or state government is imposing rules, regulations, and laws without sending the money along to carry them out . . . you will see us fighting against it.”

King explains that last year the association “backed off to the point of saying that the state probably has a responsibility to set curricular guidelines, but if Birmingham wants to offer different levels of courses at different times than Zeeland does, then they certainly ought to be able to do that.” Clearly, this position will affect the way the association approaches a variety of reform measures that likely will be put forth in 1995.

Beverly Wolkow, Executive Director of the Michigan Education Association (MEA)

According to Beverly Wolkow, the number one priority of the MEA in 1995 will be making sure that the reform package passed in December 1993 (P.A. 335) is implemented. For example, one of her top priorities this year will be to ensure that the core curriculum remains “as broad as possible and is implemented in every single school district.”

Wolkow also wants to make sure that site-based decision making is implemented. “They need to start understanding in schools what they have always understood in business, and that is that site-based decision making is part of your work and not an add-on. What happens in schools is that teachers teach all day and then in the evening or on Saturdays they do their decision making and planning. Well, it is part of work, and we are going to have to reorganize how schools are run and how they utilize time to make sure that happens.” Wolkow also cautions that schools must involve everyone in site-based decision making—from school employees to community representatives—to be effective.

Accreditation is another issue about which Wolkow is concerned. When the law was under consideration, the MEA requested that on-site visits be a component of the accreditation process. “We pushed very hard to have on-site visits to see what was really happening in schools and to have some kind of an assessment process.”

As Wolkow explains, however, after the package was passed, the on-site visits were replaced with something called “summary accreditation.” What that means is that schools will submit something on paper, which alone will be used to determine whether or not a school is accredited. “We believe this is a step backward from where we were,” says Wolkow, “and we are going to work very hard to make accreditation mean something by getting it as close to site visits as we can.”

Another priority for the MEA will be, as Wolkow puts it, “to try to prevent anything that we think will weaken education and the quality out there.” She cites expected attempts to weaken teacher certification and training requirements as an example. “I think there will be attempts to take away the State Board of Education’s ability to evaluate state universities on whether or not they are doing a good job in teacher education. I think that goes the wrong way. We need to get teachers better trained, more certified, and more qualified; we do not need them less so.” Therefore, Wolkow expects the MEA to continue to push for greater professional developmentopportunities for both teachers and administrators.

The final priority for Wolkow, and she believes for the state, will be to address the “whole area of special education, particularly inclusivity.” Wolkow notes that the education system recently has seen the dismantling of many of its special education programs as students with special needs are moved back into the regular classroom. According to Wolkow, this creates problems for the classroom teacher who does not have enough training or support to deal with the transition.

She also believes that the Individualized Education Planning (IEP) process—which requires a committee of people to develop a learning program around each special education student—is problematic because the general classroom teacher is not included in the process. “It is that kind of technical issue—how do we implement inclusivity, how do we make it better, how do we deal with the medically fragile students, how do we make sure there is enough training and support?—that we have to deal with.”

Conclusion

Given the diversity of the education leaders interviewed, there was surprising agreement about what the priorities for 1995 would be. The issues mentioned by three or more people include funding, charter schools, the mandatory core curriculum, accreditation, and issues of local versus state control. Special education also was mentioned by two people, although it is doubtful whether educators and politicians have the will to tackle such a controversial and emotional subject.

In addition, the interviews generated several innovative ideas, including the concept of using cost/benefit analyses on mandates to help better define the role of schools and a greater effort to involve colleges and universities in the delivery of education by using intermediate school districts as the channel.

One thing that was clear during all of the interviews was the considerable commitment these individuals have to improving the education system. They all are extremely knowledgeable, they believe they are doing the right thing, and, despite the negative publicity, they continue to believe that education is a worthy and respectable vocation.

Given the genuine concern and commitment of those interviewed, it is somewhat surprising that the road to improvement has always been so rocky. But, perhaps, as Representative Agee suggests, it is not the individuals themselves but the system in which policies are made. “I think we have the ability to solve the problem,” says Agee, “the system can just be an impediment. If you could put all of us in a room and strip our official roles away, we could do some great things to reform education, but we find ourselves on different sides of issues all the time. We have the knowledge and brilliant people in the system, but we are confined by our roles.”

Linda Headley is president of Headley Pratt Consulting, a Lansing-based education and environmental research firm. Before that, she worked for eight years with Public Sector Consultants and briefly for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in New York City.

Copyright © 1995

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