New Education Budget Could Mean Looming School Closures

Jun 30, 2018

Last fall, Melissa Wriggelsworth said she spent some of her own paycheck to purchase binders for all 18 of her students.

It was a familiar sacrifice for the 49-year-old who taught at the Lansing Public School District for 20 years. She said that despite a superb teaching staff, schools had been "cash-strapped" and "we were always putting out fires."

That district is now one of dozens that could see sizable layoffs or closure under the 2018-2019 education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this week.

The $16.8 billion education budget, the last of the outgoing Republican governor's two terms, is being criticized by Democrats and teachers who object to a provision concerning "partnership" districts. Those districts are considered Michigan's lowest-performing that have agreed to work with the Michigan Department of Education to avoid closure.

Under the budget, those schools risk being shuttered or losing at least 25 percent of teachers and faculty if they can't prove students are on track to meet grade level proficiency standards by 18- and 36-month intervals.

"They would lose some really good teachers that do great things with kids who may not score well," Wriggelsworth said. "I don't look at students coming in as a math score."

Partnership agreements debuted a year ago under late-state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who helped negotiate them to salvage certain underperforming schools. The deals were made after Gov. Rick Snyder backed off from shutting down 38 schools, including 25 in Detroit. Most are charter schools.

Snyder last spring tried to rally support for codifying these agreements into Michigan's school accountability law, but the GOP-controlled Legislature did not have much appetite — especially in a state that has largely pivoted to a pro-school choice, accountability-driven credo. Now with Snyder on his way out and the future of partnership districts up to Whiston's successor, lawmakers have successfully slipped in an ultimatum to ensure accountability.

The legislation is not expected to change the course of these agreements, Snyder's spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.

"While this language does reference reconstitution and closure as options if the school doesn't improve satisfactorily after three years, the governor believes wholeheartedly in the partnership model," she said in a statement on Friday.

Michigan education department spokesman Bill DiSessa said partnership agreements already have accountability, and it was Whiston's guidance that steered those schools from closure. His replacement is expected to take office in July 2019, DiSessa said.

"I don't want to get involved with the differences between the parties on this, but what I can tell you is that the partnership model has been working," DiSessa said. "We are moving forward with it as we are in our overall plan, and that's to make Michigan a top 10 education state in 10 years."

GOP lawmakers are less optimistic. State Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Education, said he anticipates closures. He described the partnership agreements as nothing more than "a workaround vehicle created by the governor and superintendent to get around the law."

Kelly also pointed out it was Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm who approved state takeover of the worst-performing schools. For the now-minority party to protest is "hypocritical," he said.

"I don't think we are doing ourselves a favor by keeping continuously poor performing schools open, and subjecting kids to that environment is a disservice to the state and to those kids," he said.

This June, however, was the first time Rep. Robert Kosowski, a Westland Democrat, ever voted against an education budget.

Kosowski, minority vice chair of the House education appropriations subcommittee, said he would have otherwise supported the budget because it shepherds in Michigan's largest school funding increase in over 15 years.

"That shows you something," Kosowski said. "My teachers mean everything to me. I can't have them walking on eggshells if test scores aren't good."

Compared to last year, Michigan will now spend an additional $120 to $240 for each student. Per pupil public and charter school allowances will range from $7,871 to $8,409. This caps off a trend of measured funding hikes following Snyder's first education budget, which cut per pupil spending by $470.

Overall, DiSessa said the education department is pleased with Snyder's leadership, which also saw increased spending in early childhood development and career and technical training.

The Michigan Education Association had harsher words.

"I don't believe he's going to have a positive legacy in terms of public schools," MEA spokesman David Crim said. "He, along with the Legislature, chose their priorities in the budget when he was first elected. Those were corporate tax cuts. And that continues to this day."