School time

With hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money available for school improvement in Michigan, educators and school districts should be clamoring for their shares, right?

Not necessarily.

The state's application for the "Race to the Top" grants went to Washington, D.C., this week, signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan and state Board of Education President Kathleen Strauss. 

Most districts in Michigan have stepped up to get their share of that pie. However, some oppose the mandates the plan would include. And if they don't accept the mandates, they don't get the money.

At stake is a share of the $4 billion program that would require innovations in instruction, teacher evaluation and school administration. Michigan's share could be as much as $400 million. Proposed by President Obama, the money would pay for "school improvement" programs, broadly defined as more charter schools, more highly qualified teachers and more overhauls of failing schools

While the No Child Left Behind legislation of the Bush era was widely criticized for its unfunded mandates — mainly rigorous testing — some educators, school officials and education gurus have criticized the Race to the Top program for its aggressive reform.

Still, 40 states were expected to meet the Tuesday deadline, The New York Times reported, with 10 opting not to compete for funds for various reasons. Texas called the plan an intrusion on states' rights, Montana feared the emphasis on charter schools would hurt its small rural schools.

Most Michigan school districts endorsed the plan, but local unions not so much  — and that could count against Michigan in the application process. 

Michigan Education Association spokesman Doug Pratt says the plans "just aren't in the best interest" of Michigan students or school employees. The union, which represents about 160,000 members in 1,100 locals, recommended against endorsing it.  

"They're mixing education policy and legal documents with leaps of faith which is not a good way of doing business for anybody, most notably the students," Pratt says.

Earlier this month, the state issued a 12-page summary with the remaining 88 pages coming in too close to this week's deadline for comfort, according to Pratt. "We need details about how this is going to work in Michigan before we can make informed choices," he says.

The American Federation of Teachers-Michigan supported the plan, in general, but didn't demand support from its roughly 50 locals with 35,000 members. The president of the largest of those, Keith Johnson, from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, didn't sign off on the plan, despite having negotiated a three-year contract for his 7,000 members that includes reforms — priority schools and new evaluation methods, for example — similar to what President Obama has proposed. The state Legislature, in an effort to strengthen Michigan's application, passed a series of reforms last month, including raising the dropout age to 18, linking teacher evaluations to student performances, and increasing the number of charter schools. Those initiatives have met with growing opposition, especially from some Detroit teachers, who see the reforms as an assault on public education.

It's a tough sell, eschewing millions of dollars, but Heather Miller, a DFT member who leads the opposition to local DFT leadership, which opposes the new Detroit contract and its reforms, says it's part of a bigger fight for social justice.

"It's a massive struggle to save public education and win equal, quality schools for all," she says. 

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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