In the wake of the Michigan Legislature's surprise move to end all property tax funding of public schools, an historic opportunity looms to reshape education from the ground up.
As never before, now is the time to question basic premises and to muster the courage to champion innovative prescriptions for reform. Those with vested interests in the status quo will howl, but given what's at stake--the future of our state's children--those howls may be a measure of how genuine the reforms are. It is long past time to start thinking of education in a way that most people have never thought of it before.
Fundamentally, it is time to stop behaving as though "the system" were more important than our children, that tinkering endlessly with it or heaving more dollars at it will sooner or later produce better results. Too many in the education establishment think like the man who built the Berlin Wall and governed East Germany for thirty years, Erich Honecker. "We can't take the wall down because somebody might leave," he declared until East Germans summoned the backbone to tear it down for him.
Lansing must wrestle with the finance question and hopefully, the result will be fairness for the schools and a significant net tax cut for Michigan. The other side of the equation--an agenda for choice and quality--deserves at least as much attention. Here is a short list of needed reforms, some of which would require changes to the Michigan Constitution:
· Portability of the state's per pupil contribution. Adopting the principle of "dollars follow the scholars," parents should be allowed to send a child to their public school of choice, within or outside existing district boundaries. Parents would not have to secure the home district's approval before state aid could follow the child to another public school that has the room. This will encourage parental involvement, as well as introduce a healthy element of competition into education.
· Full educational choice. To further enhance accountability, parental involvement, and quality in schools, the state should implement a voucher plan for parents who choose to send their children to private schools. It should assure the independence of private schools while affording parents greater access to them--thereby fostering a genuine market for education where variety and innovation would be the norms, not the exceptions.
· Cost containment in school services. State aid to schools should be contingent upon a genuine effort by each district to accurately determine its operating costs and put up the following for competitive bidding by private contractors: food services, custodial work, transportation, all health benefits including teacher health insurance, and specialized instructional services. A recent Mackinac Center survey of custodial costs per square foot in Lansing area public schools found that the schools were paying as much as five times what private companies are paying for the same work in the same area.
· Substitution of merit for tenure. Teacher tenure rules which hamper a school's ability to manage its work force should be eliminated. Good teachers deserve to work with other good teachers; poor ones are no advantage to their peers or to the children they teach. Existing wrongful discharge laws which govern the private sector would be an adequate replacement.
· Encouragement of teacher entrepreneurship. Those teachers with entrepreneurial savvy should be permitted, even encouraged, to form their own educational instruction service firms and offer their "product" for sale to schools. The state should also make it easier for teachers, parents and/or administrators to form new "charter public schools," such as the very promising one being started this fall by Wayne State University.
· School-based certification. If state certification of teachers guaranteed quality, no one would be talking about a crisis in the quality of education today. Schools should be trusted in a competitive environment to hire quality instructors, even if they don't have a piece of paper from a state bureaucracy that says they can teach. Other states, such as New Jersey, have moved to relax certification; Michigan should get in sync with the trend. Too many potentially excellent instructors cannot be hired today, no matter how impressive their resumes are, simply because of antiquated certification regulations.
· Empowerment of local school management. Schools cannot be innovative, competitive and accountable if their management is hamstrung by counterproductive state rules and policies. The Department of Education in Lansing should be downsized, both in personnel and in duties. Current law regarding teacher strikes must be enforced, allowing schools to hire striker replacements. The Legislature should seek out and remove other barriers to effective, site-based management of every aspect of running a school. Public schools should be freed of the weight of administrative bureaucracy, a cancer that has grown sharply at a time when student enrollments have remained stagnant or declined.
In short, it's time to de-monopolize, to open up the educational system to the fresh air of flexibility, competition, and free choice. School officials must learn to think like entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats, and to regard parents and students as customers, not captives. Taxpayers must stand up to the corrosive influence of the teacher union leadership and instruct them in no uncertain terms that children are more important than either union dues or union power.
Let's seize the moment, put children first, and fashion an educational system that will make Michigan the envy of the nation.