by Laurie A. Cummings, M.S., Economist
|This Advisor, which examines the current effort to amend—or appeal—the Michigan School Code, has two parts: The first presents a brief background about the code and an update on reform efforts; the second presents comments by former school superintendent Robert Docking about the current code’s strengths and shortcomings and the changes he believes will be most helpful to local districts.|
The Michigan School Code
An Act to provide a system of public instruction and elementary and secondary schools.
Public Act 451 of 1976
Michigan’s 172-page school code regulates teachers, students, and school administrators. The law delimits school districts, grants powers to school boards, and regulates many aspects of school operations. It also governs athletics, teacher certification, school elections, and many other facets of Michigan K–12 education. The law’s scope may be seen in the exhibit on the next page, which is an abridgment of the code’s table of contents.
Given the expanse of the school code, Gov. John Engler’s proposal earlier this year to repeal it caused jaws to drop. In explaining, he said, “It is 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.”1
Would a school code repeal result in a clean slate on which to re-create Michigan education? The answer is no. Despite the breadth of the code, it contains only about 20 percent of all legal restrictions affecting Michigan schools.2 About 5 percent are found in the School Aid Act, and about 75 percent are in a variety of other state statutes—tax laws, the Public Employment Relations Act, various health and safety codes, and many others. Moreover, several are based in federal law, including such major legislation as the Education for the Handicapped Act, which requires “mainstreaming” special education students into the general school population.3 Clearly, there are limits to what even complete repeal of the state school code would accomplish.
While repeal would not provide a totally clean slate, it would substantially change our education system. School year length, corporal punishment, school holidays, and other basics are regulated by P.A. 451.
Total repeal also would eliminate the reforms brought about by P.A. Act 25, which was enacted in 1990; among these are the core curriculum that schools will have to follow as of the 1997–98 school year, school improvement plans, the requirement that every school district annually issue a “state of the district” report (including the results of Michigan Educational Assessment Program and other tests) to its community and the state, and accreditation requirements.
The code also contains measures passed as a result of the 1994 school finance reform, including legislation allowing charter schools, new regulations for teacher preparation, and the requirement that a portfolio of his/her achievements be maintained for every student.
A repeal also could eliminate various “unfunded mandates,” which require districts, without state reimbursement, to provide such programs as driver’s education and monitor such state requirements as school children’s immunizations and vision testing.
Most observers agree that an absolute repeal of the school code is unrealistic and unlikely. The school code gives the state’s approximately 560 districts their very authority to exist as governing units. School districts are empowered to engage only in activities specified in the school code: “School officials must find a law enabling them to implement a particular program or service” before they can act.4 If the school code were entirely repealed, this authority must be granted by other means.
The governor suggests that districts be given the authority to write their own school codes, based on a state model, but he has not yet provided details. If this tack is taken, the state still will need a large body of regulation to grant authority to local districts and delineate activities that local school codes may and may not permit.
Status of the Reform Effort
A two-sentence bill—Senate Bill 187—has been introduced to repeal P.A. 451. Although the bill itself is receiving little legislative discussion, school reform efforts are proceeding on many fronts.
A group of state Republicans, working independently, has presented recommendations to the governor. The State Board of Education also has made recommendations to modify and/or eliminate many sections of the code. One lawmaker has introduced a resolution calling for a commission to study the code and identify which parts should be changed. In addition, public hearings on reform are being held by both the House and the Senate, and some special interests also are reviewing the code.
There clearly is a race to develop the winning plan, and warnings by some observers and players that the process is moving too fast are, so far, going unheeded.
Interview with Robert Docking
Real Change in Education
What does former school superintendent Robert Docking think of the current round of reforms? From Dr. Docking’s perspective, the acid test for education reform is the degree to which it improves what and how a child learns. His bottom line is that “real change occurs between a child and a teacher in a classroom.” He believes that real change is most likely to occur when teachers and principals, with parental support, understand what each other is doing and want to move in a common direction. He explains that if the direction of school code reform is to maximize cooperation and collaboration among staff, teachers, students, and parents, the change could be positive.
Local Education Codes
When asked about replacing the state code with local ones, Dr. Docking responds that he does not see the need for radical change. He believes that generally, the school code has worked well and over the years has enabled districts to work efficiently and effectively. He also makes the argument that all of Michigan’s 560 districts would need lawyers to help them draft their local school code, and he questions the need for that expenditure. Besides the legal and other expenses, it would be redundant for hundreds of districts to engage in such a process, because the majority of the state code is, as a basic structure, effective.
State Role in Education
Despite opposing the complete replacement of the state school code with local education codes, Dr. Docking strongly supports greater local control. He explains that “to the degree that schools have the latitude to look at time differently, instructional materials differently, instructional strategies differently, and have more freedom, there is a greater chance of significant change.” He asserts that to the extent that school code reform provides such latitude, education will improve. He also maintains that when such matters as calendars, materials, and teaching strategies are mandated and managed from the state capital, the chances of real change filtering down to a child are minimized.
To emphasize his belief about the need for local freedom, Dr. Docking makes the comparison between a galleon and a sailboat. In a galleon, the crew is in chains, below deck and removed from decision making, and facing backward; in a sailboat, there is a person at the tiller providing direction, but the crew is involved directly with the decision maker(s) and able to respond quickly to the winds of change. Dr. Docking thinks that in some ways, Michigan education still operates like a galleon. He makes the further point that in the past most businesses operated this way, but in recent years more and more have shifted to the sailboat approach. Dr. Docking sees Governor Engler’s push to put more freedom in the hands of local decision makers as a step in the right direction, but he believes that more than change in the school code is necessary to make this a reality.
Dr. Docking identifies some particular “chains” in the school code that he would like to see removed. One of the most egregious is the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. He considers the test to be less valid and a less reliable predictor of student achievement than many people think. He believes that, worse yet, the MEAP test drives curriculum, determining what will be taught and how.
Dr. Docking also opposes the mandated core curriculum because it is a “statement of values” and does not include certain components (such as the arts) that he considers critical to a child’s education.
What should be the state’s role in education? Dr. Docking believes that the state should maximize opportunities for positive change. In keeping with his conviction that real change happens in the classroom, not in offices or legislative chambers, he would have state laws maximize the ability of schools to have everyone “cooperatively sailing the boat in the same direction.” He believes that, furthermore, state decisions should not contradict the mission and goals of local school districts, and that rules, paperwork, and testing imposed by Lansing do not maximize positive change for children.
As specific examples of changes to the school code that would promote constructive change, Dr. Docking suggests that it should be made easier for districts to use local or other tests to measure progress, paperwork should be minimized, and schools should be permitted to use the core curriculum as a model rather than having to adopt it in toto.
One change Dr. Docking hopes not to see is reversal of teacher certification requirements; he states that beginning teachers have much better skills now than in the past, and he believes that everyone who teaches (whether in a charter or a traditional school) should meet certification standards. This also should apply to administrators, who no longer must be certified.
Despite his hope that policy makers will diminish the state’s role in local education, Dr. Docking believes that during the past year Lansing has done some good things for Michigan schools. He is particularly pleased that the funding disparity among districts was reduced by the reforms of 1994. He also believes that the restraints placed on education labor unions, such as the teacher strike law, are in the best interest of kids.
It is difficult for anyone to predict the outcome of the present round of education reform. The fact that the school code is being revised does not necessarily imply an education system overhaul—most school reforms (such as those brought about through P.A. 25 of 1990) have consisted of revisions to the school code.
The difference this time will be the magnitude of change. Governor Engler envisions only two state roles in education, in addition to funding: ensuring accountability and assessing school performance. While others say they prefer to see a much less radical change, no one has said that s/he prefers the status quo. At this point in the reform process, only one outcome is certain in 1995’s unpredictable education arena—change is inevitable.