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Posted on Sun, Dec 13, 2009 : 5:40 a.m.

Race to the Top school reforms look more like frantic scramble for funds

By Tony Dearing

Is the Race to the Top really that, or just a race for dollars? We’ll find out as Michigan lawmakers rush their way through a package of school reforms aimed at making Michigan eligible for some of $400 million in federal education funds.

Local school officials must find it richly ironic that the Michigan Legislature - which has been abysmal in its unwillingness to deal with the education-funding crisis - is suddenly a hotbed of reform now that a big chunk of federal money is up for grabs.

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A teacher reads to students at Honey Creek Community School, a charter school in Ann Arbor. The Legislature is considering school reforms that include an expansion of charter schools.

The funds will be available next year under President Obama’s new education initiative called Race to the Top. States have to apply for the money, and it will go to those that can show they’ve adopted education reforms that really work.

Suddenly, a Legislature that has dithered for years when it comes to any meaningful action on reforming public education or how it’s funded is moving at warp speed. It intends to enact, by January, a package of bills that expand charter schools, create new paths to teacher certification, make it easier to fire teachers for poor performance and give the state more power to take over failing schools.

Particularly controversial has been a proposal in the state House to rescind a 2005 law that benefited the state’s tourism industry by preventing schools from opening before Labor Day.

Far be it for us to fault lawmakers for their newfound willingness to take on serious education reform - if that is what’s actually happening here. But this feels more like a legislative scramble to secure federal funds.

The debate over whether to let schools start before Labor Day strikes us as an example of that. We are strongly in favor of shortening the traditional summer vacation; in fact, we’d favor far more radical changes to the school year. Research shows that a long summer break is a particular detriment to low- and moderate-income students, who regress educationally during summer vacation and come back to school further behind.

But it’s unfortunate that the state House is focusing on a piece of legislation that pits the interests of education reform against those of tourism-oriented businesses, which are struggling mightily in this economy. Will the problems created by a long summer break really be fixed by having school start a week earlier? Or will we continue to get the same results, while harming an important part of the state economy that’s already suffering?

There are other, more creative ways to reform the school calendar, such as going to a quarterly system, or extending the academic year further into June, or offering more flexible summer school options that could keep students engaged in learning, but allow families to still vacation.

Too often, at both the state and local level, we see officials looking for quick fixes to what ails education, rather than addressing the kinds of structural changes that are needed to bring our schools into the 21st century.

The system for funding education in Michigan is broken. At a time when education is vital to our future, the state has shockingly high illiteracy and dropout rates, and students who stay in school too often lag in achievement. Even in our area, where student achievement is generally much higher, our schools have saddled themselves with a cost structure that can no longer be sustained.

That’s our definition of a crisis, and this one isn’t going to be solved by simply feeding more money into the system. Ultimately, we believe that’s the message that Washtenaw County voters delivered when they turned down the proposed school enhancement millage last month.

It’s a message that superintendents and school boards would do well to keep in mind as they begin to deal with their budget shortfalls, and it’s one that state lawmakers must heed as they put together an education reform package in their quest to cash in on Race to the Top dollars. We need deep, structural change that will create better results, not another squabble over whether we should start school a few days before Labor Day or a few days after.

(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board of



Wed, Dec 16, 2009 : 6:49 a.m.

Snapshot, You are 100% correct in your responses to Steve Norton. Any company that spends 85% of their revenues on salaries and benefits will not be in business for long. That is why the public schools need input from the private sector, it is obvious that in addition to the students not being able to count change or balance a checkbook, those that teach the kids and manage the schools cannot do it either.


Tue, Dec 15, 2009 : 1:21 a.m.

Mr. Norton, It is interesting that the proponents of the education "enhancement" millage are very quick to negate the intentions of the electorate. I believe the intent was, or should be apparent to the millage supporters from the many newspaper articles, advertisements, and editorials that preceded the election. There is an arrogance in your tone that I consider to be insulting to an informed electorate. That the voters refused to "purchase" something they did not see as a "good value" does not even register as a valid message to you would indicate you are somehow insulated from economic reality. This is further evidenced by your lack of corporate expertise revealed by your complete misunderstanding of non tax funded, for profit, corporate strategies to contain costs. If the "downsizing" you say was not a successful strategy there would today be no IBM, Xerox, AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, Campbells Soup, Mitsubishi, and a host of other corporations too numerous to mention. The fact that you believe withholding funding is not conducive to the element of change further enhances my resolve that you are entirely insulated from economic reality. The issue of withholding federal funds for abortion is a perfect example of using funding as leverage to achieve a specific result. The only accounting fraud here is your assertion that experimentation and added resources are what is needed to improve our education system. It is my opinion that this freewheeling attitude is the causal factor in its failure. The seemingly endless stream of new concepts to better educate our youth in reading, writing, and math has produced an illiterate stream of graduates that can't count back change or balance their checkbooks. And you say we need more of the same to be successful. The fact that 85% of school budgets are going to teachers salaries and benefits should be a red flag. In private enterprise, if 85% of budget went to employees and benefits to the exclusion of inventory, merchandise, tools, training, and real estate there would be nothing left to sell to the public. Look at GM and Chrysler for this model. Our public schools should be in bancruptcy but instead you advocate throwing good money after bad and using the same academic arguement that has contributed to the academic demise of our children while lining the pockets of the persons charged with their success.

Tom Bower

Mon, Dec 14, 2009 : 6:10 p.m.

The problem is federal involvement in local education. This is just another example of Michigan chasing temporary federal dollars. The more we go after federal money, the less local control we have, and the more attention is diverted from longer-range solutions. The wise thing would be for Michigan to say "Thanks, but no thanks" and take a pass on the federal money. Why is high school a four year process? Why not two years, with the final two years being spent in community college earning college credits and associate degrees that transfer to other colleges/universities? Why does it take four years for an undergraduate degree? Why not have more 2+2 or 3+1 programs articulated with community college programs? And, why when we have a surplus of teachers in Michigan, would the legislature in its wisdom approve reducing the requirements for people to obtain a teaching certificate? When there is oversupply, we want to increase the supply of teachers? Why does the state require 1,098 annual hours of "seat time" (instruction - which includes time spent passing from one class to the next) for high school students when these students could be earning associate degrees at community colleges by spending only 450 hours every 30 weeks in the classroom and earning an associate degree in two years?

Steve Norton, MIPFS

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 : 9:37 p.m.

Mr. Dearing, et al., I agree that the Legislature's rush to enact reforms is rather unseemly, though their desire to secure federal dollars seems well-motivated to me. Education funding in Michigan is taking a beating as it is in few other places in this country, so every little bit helps. I have written elsewhere on the risks of moving with such unseemly haste. But I must disagree with your characterization of the "message" behind the defeat of the county-wide millage. Of course, with 78% of the registered electorate sitting the election out, it is hard to infer any message. Nevertheless, I believe most opponents simply could not countenance added property taxes at this time. I think that is an emotionally understandable, but very short-sighted, choice. Some millage opponents tried to make the "no" vote easier to cast by saying, as you do, that dramatic change needs to happen first. I agree that our public schools could benefit from change, though I disagree that withholding funds is an effective way of prompting positive change. Many Americans are accustomed to thinking of downsizing as the same as efficiency, but more often than not downsizing is simply downsizing. Some of the most famous examples of private sector "restructuring" in recent decades later turned out to be accounting frauds. We cannot allow wishful thinking - that we can have schools that are much cheaper and also much better - determine our policy priorities. Real change will require experimentation and added resources, not a rapid disinvestment in our public schools. Public schools are not failing most children as much as is often supposed, though they are far from delivering fully on the promise of a complete and meaningful education for all children regardless of their circumstances. Let us not confuse the constant effort to make good on the promise of our common commitment to public education with fallacious notions that all public schools are broken and must all be subject to a drastic overhaul using whatever philosophies have most recently garnered public attention. I welcome the Federal government's efforts to encourage states to experiment with school reforms, though I worry that the short time frame will encourage hasty rather than well-considered changes. But most of all, we must understand that real improvements to our schools will not come for free - though they do offer a tremendous return on our common investment.


Sun, Dec 13, 2009 : 9:26 p.m.

It's ironic that elected officals who shirk or avoid their fiduciary and moral responsiblities for school funding for several years, can become so addicted to federal sucre with so little thought and in such a short time.