'Neighborhood' schools to replace failing ones?

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Capital News Service
Oct. 2, 2009
LANSING- A Senate bill would allow “neighborhood public schools”—tax-supported institutions that would provide an educational alternative to traditional schools, much like charter schools.
Neighborhood public school corporations would have governing bodies and could be established anywhere in Michigan, but priority would go to districts with schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Under the proposal, the schools would receive state aid and be subject to state testing and graduation standards.
But critics say neighborhood public schools are unnecessary, and that existing schools can be fixed.
Funding for the new schools wouldn’t all come from the strained state budget because federal dollars are available, according to the sponsor, Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland.
Congress appropriated $4.35 billion for President Obama’s Race to the Top program to go to states actively encouraging alternative forms of education. Half of that amount would go to grants for what the feds call “local education agencies.”
Kuipers estimates that the new federal program could bring the state up to $600 million in new grants.
However, Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters said her organization, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, opposes the proposal.
“What we need to do is figure out how we can help those schools in need,” said Salters.
Kuipers said he sees neighborhood public schools as a better solution than giving more money to traditional public schools.
“If money was the issue, we wouldn’t have any failing schools. Some of our schools that are failing the worst are getting the most money,” said Kuipers.
Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said money isn’t the only reason schools do poorly and the bill isn’t the answer. The association represents local and intermediate school boards.
“Just turning failing schools into a neighborhood public school or charter school we don’t believe is the answer,” said Wotruba.
Charter schools are tax-funded, quasi-public schools and their organization is  supporting the proposed legislation.
“Neighborhood public schools would provide competition, but they would also provide a choice,” said Gary Naeyaert, vice president for public relations and legislative affairs at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
“They’d certainly be eligible to be members of our organization, and we’d be aggressively pursuing them,” he said.
Kuipers said no public schools in his district are failing, and his proposal would not immediately impact them.
However, Kuipers added, the bill also provides an option for teachers fed up with a district’s bureaucracy, and that could help anywhere in Michigan, including Holland.
Any single building within a school district would be able  apply to secede from the district and convert to a neighborhood public school by obtaining a majority vote of teachers and parents.
Wotruba said that would disenfranchise the community’s taxpayers who pay for the school but don’t have students there.
The bill also would encourage the establishment of dropout recovery centers, and give funding priority to neighborhood public schools in districts with high levels of students at risk of dropping out.
Kuipers said the bill would ultimately help Michigan students by applying the best ideas of local education agencies nationally.
“It’s working in other states,” said Kuipers.
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee and is awaiting action by the full Senate.
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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