Secret school reform group works to design a for-profit school model with Governor Snyder’s blessing

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Okay, this stinks

Here’s the thing about the idea of giving Michigan parents vouchers to use at any school, public or private, to educate their kids: it’s unconstitutional. Twice in the past 35 years Michigan voters have shot down ballot proposals to allow the funneling of tax dollars into private, non-public schools. This, of course, doesn’t stop corporatist groups and individuals like the Mackinac Center or the DeVos family for pushing endlessly for a school voucher system and the shifting of tax money earmarked for education into for-profit corporations.

This past week the Detroit News did some fantastic investigative journalism and reported that a group of school reformers, a self-dubbed “skunk works“, has been meeting in secret with the Governor’s blessing to form a new sort of private school where kids will be educated on the cheap using a for-profit model and it will be paid for with vouchers. The best part? No educators are part of the group.

A secret work group that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder has been meeting since December to develop a lower-cost model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers.

The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News … The school would seek to maximize the roughly $7,000 annual per-pupil funding regular schools get from taxpayers by applying “concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money.”

John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, whose name is among those talked about as a potential candidate for Governor, knew nothing of the “skunk works” reform group. He’s suitably worried about their efforts:

The initiative is “very unnerving” given the history of Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, a work group member, in pursuing vouchers, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, who was unaware of the “skunk works” project. A voucher system lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools — something prohibited by the state Constitution.

“This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings,” Austin said. “That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions.”

The group consists mainly of information technology experts along with anti-public school/anti-union reformers McLellan ensuring that their final recommendations will be aimed at privatizing the education of kids to corporate entities who will use cyber schools and computer learning models to achieve another “concept familiar in the private sector”: corporate profits. However, these profits will come directly from tax payers as the privatized schools cherry-pick the students with the best potential to fatten their bottom line, leaving special needs students and poor school districts behind to fight over an even smaller pool of funds.

The secretive group is headed up by Governor Snyder’s chief information officer, David Behen, one of five state employees on the panel. Behen says the group isn’t being secretive despite the fact that members were asked to use private email addresses “because it’s just easier”. Just why it’s easier to use one email address over another is unclear. What IS clear, however, is that the group was, indeed, secret until the Detroit News broke the story, and they wanted it to remain that way. The secrecy has elicited strong responses from educators and their union leaders across Michigan:

Four state government employees, including the state’s chief information and technology officers, were directed to use private email accounts to correspond on the project, according to records obtained by The News.

Snyder, who has made government transparency a top priority since taking office in 2011, said questions about the education reform team’s discreet actions were “overblown.”

But school groups slammed Snyder for endorsing an aide’s deliberate decision not to involve teachers and administrators in an education reform project.

“I thought we were beyond the Watergate secrecy, all kinds of things being done in a clandestine fashion,” said William Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Mayes said the secretive group’s deliberations leaves “a dark mark on (Snyder’s) tremendous legacy.”

Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association had some pointed words, as well:

Snyder’s secret group deliberately shut out input from educators in favor of information technology companies who stand to make money off this scheme. This is a direct attempt to undermine elected school boards, principals and school employees, and it’s a slap in the face to teachers and education support professionals, who work tirelessly to educate our children every day.

Rather than holding secret meetings with corporate special interests to concoct new school voucher schemes and value-meal education, Snyder should be making the proper funding of our kids’ schools a top priority.

Michigan kids deserve a world-class education – not a dime store diploma.

Here’s David Hecker of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan:

This report indicates that Gov. Snyder and Lansing Republicans are now acting in secret to continue their work to undermine public education. First they cut $1 billion from K12 schools to give a $1.8 billion tax cut to big banks and insurance companies, then they cut a backroom deal to force through right to work, locking citizens out of the Capitol and accepting no input from Michigan workers and families.

Now we learn that Gov. Snyder’s administration has been holding secret meetings with corporate special interests to hatch a risky new voucher scheme that has been twice rejected by Michigan voters, because it shortchanges students. The idea that we would hand the keys to even more of our schools over to for-profit companies when nearly 50% of new businesses fail within five years is not what is best for our students.

Instead of setting education policy in smoke-filled rooms with lobbyists and lawyers, we need our elected leaders to start working together with teachers to invest in education and help our kids succeed. The Snyder Administration must be committed to transparency and inclusiveness to ensure that kids receive the world-class education they deserve.

I’m becoming more and more alarmed by the corporatist takeover of Michigan. It’s something I expected when Rick Snyder was elected but it’s happening on a much more profound level than I thought possible. Now that we learn that members of his staff and administration are actively working in secret to undermine public education to help provide yet another income source for private businesses, it’s time Michigan voters demand accountability from our governor. He was elected to run our state in a way that creates “more and better jobs” and provides the services we expect from our tax dollars. Those tax dollars aren’t a plum for him and his administration to award to private corporations under the guise of “efficiency”.

If Governor Snyder wants to run the government like a business, that’s his prerogative. What is NOT his prerogative is to turn our government over to business, whether it’s the education of our students, the incarceration of our prisoners or the delivery of essential public services like fire and police protection.

[CC image credit: anemoneprojectors | Flickr]

  • JoyMama

    Next door in Wisconsin, see also a new report from One Wisconsin Now called “P is for Payoff” at http://www.onewisconsinnow.org/P-Is-For-Payoff.pdf

    The scope and depth of this education-privatization campaign is shocking, disgusting, frightening.

    — The Bradley Foundation, headed by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign co-chair
    Michael Grebe has underwritten a massive pro-privatization propaganda
    campaign.
    — Bradley has spent over $31 million since 2001 supporting organizations
    promoting education privatization, academics providing favorable proprivatization
    pseudo-science, media personalities promoting the privatization
    agenda and lobbying organizations advocating for privatization legislation.

  • TeacherPatti

    Dear Mr. Behen~ Hi. I am a special education teacher. (I also have my Doctor of Law, which I add just to brag on myself). I certainly understand wanting to do things “because it’s easier”–heck, I am right now skipping an exercise class and sitting on my couch for that very reason!

    Do you know what’s *not* easy? Being a special education teacher! We work with kids who are severely handicapped, who are going to die before their next birthday, who can’t see, can’t read, can’t hear, can’t walk, can’t talk. Somehow, we figure out a way to make school work for these kids be it through technology, PECS boards, Braille, sign language, audio books and just good old fashioned teaching. It’s a wonderful job, but it is rarely “easy”.

    You know what else isn’t easy? Doing this work with an ever dwindling pile of funds! I have been told to do “more with less” so many times that I could probably retire if that statement crapped silver coins. Somehow, we do it. We take on more kids, we buy our own supplies, we reuse/recycle and we make it work.
    It’s a wonderful job. It is the best job I can imagine (certainly better than working in a law firm, ha ha!). But it is never easy. And to read someone like you, someone who is having meetings that exclude people like me–people with degrees, experience and knowledge–simply because it’s “easy” makes me physically ill. To never once read about how special needs kids will survive in this corporate, profit driven model makes me want to cry. To never read about how low income, “hard to educate” or discipline problem kids will get an education once we worry more about lining the pockets of a few technology companies and a few rich guys, well, that makes my heart hurt.
    In other words, sir, reading what you have say…it just isn’t easy on this special education teacher.
    Sincerely yours,
    TeacherPatti

  • In the past it seemed like vouchers were just about using public money for non-public education people were already choosing (home schooling, religious schools, etc.). This plan seems like something much more expansive … replacing even the option of traditional public school with an EBT voucher card to buy for-profit services.

  • Why don’t more parents (and taxpayers) question the logic of for-profit schools. The implication is that public schools (often considered a drain on the local economy) are suddenly going to MAKE money once the right people are in charge. Are classes going to be turned into child-labor manufacturing facilities??? Public education has worked for almost 200 years in America. Allowing for-profit companies to steal public money and produce questionable educational success is a travesty. The bottom line will always be profits and not education quality.

  • Will this for profit school apply for federal dollars in the form of grand? Once again republicans talking from both sides of their mouths. Government is too big when it suits their purpose and is not broke unless republicans say so, and that is when they benefit from government money.

  • Harold DeHart

    We are currently in Hawaii on a three week vacation. Reading this kind of information exposing the absolutely vile education reform project makes me not want to come home. Except, my wife is a retired teacher and we have a daughter who is currently a teacher, which makes us want to fight against such a travesty. In short, it is just disgusting what our state is continuing to do to it’s citizens.

  • Please, everyone who is complaining, please offer a solution to the public school system that is absolutely burning through money. Honestly, come up with a solution or shut up. Obviously something needs to change. Lets hear it?

    • TeacherPatti

      That’s a fair question except that you have to realize that the problem often lies outside the school (i.e. communities, parents). I can tell you what should NOT be happening: schools getting public funds to run a school that is for profit. This leads to consequences such as the neighborhood school losing its funding and declining, the cherry picking of students who are “likely to succeed”, further erosion of local control. Perhaps if we started there–by stopping for profit charter schools and concentrating on our neighborhood schools–we could begin building something wonderful.

    • It’s a system that has worked just fine for 200 years and is responsible for churning out the world’s greatest innovators in every field possible, as well as building up the world’s most industrialized and wealthiest economy.

      Attempting to privatize education in the K-12 level is akin to private health insurance industry in that it creates an unnecessary middleman that serves only to take a good percentage of money designated for education and using it, instead, for profits for the few.

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