Federal aid may not help schools with big deficits

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By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Some school officials and teacher unions believe Michigan’s Race to the Top plan may not produce significant academic improvement if school districts’ immediate need for more money isn’t addressed.
Michigan’s Race to the Top plan has been signed by 756 districts. However, only 42 local unions have signed their district memorandums in support of the program.
“All the No Child Left Behinds or Race to the Tops in the world won’t help if we don’t have stable funding put in place for our school districts,” said Grand Ledge Public Schools chief financial officer Tom Goodwin. “Without adequate funding, more and more school districts will likely fail to meet the standards our legislators have put in place.”
Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters has cautioned locals against the plan. Salters said the statewide union will advise local presidents not to sign contracts that legally require them to implement a plan that doesn’t fix fundamental funding problems or pay for the new mandates the plan requires.
“MEA representatives spent countless hours working with the Department of Education to address our concerns about the draft state plan and to set reasonable deadlines that would allow people to see the final plan before making final commitments,” Salters said. “When we made such arguments, the department’s answer was simply to make local union presidents’ signatures optional, cutting us out of what was meant to be a collaborative process.”
Due to budget deficits, state aid to public schools was cut by 11 percent in October, resulting in $165 less per student for 2010.
While Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids public schools all signed off on the Race to the Top legislation, they are experiencing financial shortfalls. For example, Detroit lost $18 million in state aid while Lansing lost $3 million and Grand Rapids lost $9 million.
State officials project an additional $425 million cut in K-12 aid for 2011, which translates to $263 per student.
“If we keep cutting the way we are cutting, we’re going to have more and more districts that fail,” Goodwin said. “The question we need to ask ourselves is, what’s an acceptable failure rate for schools? I believe zero.”
Legislation passed late last year allows the Department of Education to establish a process for state takeover or closing of the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. It creates a state school reform and redesign officer in the department to oversee those schools.
However, Goodwin says the bottom 5 percent may not accurately address the number of failing districts because of the decrease in state aid.
“With all the lost revenue in funding, districts are forced to let teachers go, which ultimately increases class sizes considerably,” Goodwin said. “The problem is that with the Race to the Top, we continue to ask more of our teachers while failing to equip them with the proper resources.”
Legislators are divided on what approach to take to resolve the deficit without additional cuts to education aid. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, is proposing 5 percent pay cuts for teachers, professors and state and local government workers, while Reps. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills and Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair say strengthening local businesses and put people back to work will help generate revenue through increased tax income.
Rep. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, said the Legislature needs to look at innovative ways to generate revenue to provide school districts with adequate funding. Johnson said the Legislature shouldn’t reduce school aid to resolve the deficit.
“We need to look at honest ways to increase revenue to provide school districts with the necessary tools to provide the quality education we are demanding,” said Johnson.

Michigan’s Race to the Top plan includes new laws that:

• Direct the Education Department to establish a process for state takeover or closing of the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.
• Create a state school reform and redesign officer in the department to oversee those failing schools.
• Raise the dropout age from 16 to 18.
• Allow alternative certification of teachers. 12 credit hour cert plan.
• Allow high-quality charter schools to become Schools of Excellence and authorize new charter schools.
• Require districts to assess teachers annually based on student progress and achievement.
Source: Michigan Department of Education
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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