III. Improving Education for Michigan Children

All across America, a consensus is emerging about the troubled state of public education: The system is hidebound with regulations, bureaucracy, and disincentives for excellence. Remove these barriers, subject the system to competition, empower parents with choice and improvements will at last begin to take place-that's the general prescription accepted more widely with each passing day. With the introduction of inter-district choice, charter schools, and other reforms of recent years, Michigan has made progress in the right direction. Sadly, however, too many children still languish in poor and unsafe schools. Few issues are more important to the future of the state than education reform: making Michigan's schools competitive for the twenty-first century.

13. Remove the cap on the number of charter schools state universities can authorize.

Michigan's status as a national charter school leader is directly related to the bold and innovative steps taken by state universities such as Central Michigan University. However, this progress will be impeded by the legislative limitation placed on the number of charter schools state universities can authorize.

The current cap is set at 150 schools and it appears that this number could be reached(or even surpassed) in the next year (see Chart 4). The Legislature should remove this cap and allow for the expansion of charter schools rather than their limitation. It should also consider the creation of an additional authorizing entity, perhaps a statewide charter school commission.

Charter schools have been particularly well received by many minority and poor students. For these students, charter schools offer the only alternative to a system that is failing to meet their needs. These opportunities should be expanded rather than limited or contracted.

The charter school is the future of public education-local control and accountability with public funds-and the Michigan Department of Education should begin to prepare the state for the transition.

14. Extend the length of charter school contracts and allow schools to utilize multiple sites under one charter.

The length of charter contracts is not specified by statute, but three to five years has emerged as the norm. Contracts of such short duration have a dramatically negative impact on the financial arrangements that charter schools can enter into, thereby reducing flexibility and options and raising the cost of providing an education. The Legislature should encourage charter school authorizers to utilize long-term contracts or even "evergreen" contracts that can be revoked any time a compliance failure exists or persists.

Allowing charter schools to utilize multiple sites under one charter would permit campus-style schools with a single address, the use of off-site facilities for instructional purposes, or the establishment of charter high schools that service pre-existing K-8 charters.

15. Create a "Charter Schools Stimulus Fund."

The Legislature should create a "Charter Schools Stimulus Fund" to provide grants and loans on a competitive basis to assist charter schools with the financial obstacles of start-up and expansion costs. A per pupil capital payment for use towards facilities and equipment costs, equalized statewide, would be a good mechanism to accomplish this.

16. Require traditional public school districts to make non-utilized school buildings available for use by charter schools.

Additionally, the Legislature should stipulate that when a public school seeks to sell a facility, it cannot prohibit the sale of the property to a charter school or in any way inhibit the use of that property by a charter school after sale.

17. Allow property tax exemption to be passed on from a charter school to its landlord.

Schools that lease facilities currently suffer additional costs because their landlord cannot benefit from the schools' tax-exempt status.

18. Permit experience and/or education to qualify teachers for charter schools.

In addition to hiring state-certified teachers, charter schools should be allowed to hire non-certified teachers whose experience and/or education qualifies them to teach in a particular field. Certification requirements for administrators and other school personnel should also be waived.

Arizona law permits non-certified teachers to enter the teaching profession and the state has experienced great success in attracting the kind of quality educators who would be excluded from teaching at traditional public schools in Michigan. Meanwhile, statistics on home schooled children demonstrate the weak relationship between certification and academic success (see Chart 5).

19. Reform teacher certification to increase the pool of quality teachers.

Teacher certification has never guaranteed qualification. In fact, many qualified teachers are excluded from entering a classroom because they lack state certification.

People who possess the ability and knowledge to teach are ultimately excluded from entering the teaching profession due to expensive, time consuming, and onerous red tape imposed by certification procedures.

The state should reform teacher certification in order to allow the most qualified people to enter the classroom at any time. The teaching profession should be open to all who are deemed to be positive role models and competent in their subject areas. School districts and individual schools should be given the ability to set qualifications for entering the teaching profession.

To address the shortage of highly qualified teachers, public policy should encourage local schools and districts to recruit teachers from the ranks of their best students, and provide training and mentoring in the schools in which they will serve.

20. Remove discriminatory language from the state constitution that prohibits tuition tax credits.

The U. S. Supreme Court has defended the primary right and responsibility of parents to direct the education of their children. However, Article 8, Section 2 of the 1963 Michigan constitution prevents the majority of Michigan parents from choosing the safest and best school for their children. It is therefore incumbent upon the Legislature to remove the1970 amendment that took away this right and responsibility from parents.

Under the current system, parents who choose to send their children to a nonpublic school must pay twice-once in taxes for public schools they don't use and again in tuition for the school they do use. This financial penalty prevents the majority of Michiganians from exercising their rights as parents, as it is only the wealthy who are able to afford such financial choices. Three polls in 1998 alone showed overwhelming support among parents for a mechanism that will allow them greater school choice (see Chart 6).

As shown in a Mackinac Center for Public Policy study, The Universal Tuition Tax Credit: A Proposal to Advance Parental Choice in Education7, a properly designed tax credit plan can save money for the state's School Aid Fund, make possible an increase in the state's per pupil foundation allocation, create new incentives for school improvement, and expand options for parents-all at the same time.

21. Move all school elections to the general elections in November.

In the interest of greater public participation in the democratic process and reducing onerous costs, all school-related issues that need voter approval should be decided in the general election cycle that occurs each November. Currently, Michigan school districts can call an election every six months. A vote might be in February one year and June the next. Polling places for these elections are often sites other than those used in general elections, and citizens are confused even more when some districts have elections on days other than the customary Tuesday.

By requiring that school governance and finance issues appear on the November ballot, significantly more citizens will know the place and time of the election and will exercise their right to decide how their schools will be run. Ballot consolidation will also relieve school officials of the responsibility for conducting elections and allow them instead to focus that time and money on their primary responsibility, educating children.

22. Exempt innovative schools and school districts from the requirements of onerous state statutes and regulations.

Public policy should encourage teachers and administrators to recognize the diversity of students who come before them and provide the array of educational programs that will better address the varied ways children learn and are tailor-made to the needs of students. These alternative education programs known as "schools within schools," pioneered by New York City's District 4, have demonstrated significant success.

If significant numbers of parents and teachers want to implement alternative programs, the state superintendent of public instruction should be enabled to exempt a school or district from those requirements of state statutes and regulations that inhibit innovation and to guarantee that freedom as long as educational progress is demonstrated. Parents within the district wishing to enroll their child in a traditional school or an alternative school should be free to do so.

Alternative schools should be free to adopt specific, written admission standards. Standards may include, but need not be limited to, the following: consideration of the capacity of a program, class, grade level, or school building; student academic ability; student behavior; or an advance requirement of parental participation in specified school programs.

23. Exempt public schools from the Prevailing Wage Act.

On page 9 of this report, the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act was explained as special interest legislation designed to benefit organized labor at the expense of anyone in the state who receives state tax dollars for a construction project. The Act, in effect, requires the payment of union-scale wages and tends to lock out the majority of Michigan construction workers and firms that are open (or "merit") shops. The Mackinac Center strongly urges the repeal of the Act in its entirety.

However, legislators who are unwilling to go the full measure should at least provide relief to the state's public schools by exempting them from compliance with the Prevailing Wage Act. Within the first five years, such an exemption could save Michigan schools millions of dollars in unnecessary construction costs-money that could be better utilized in the classroom. Legislators who oppose such an exemption have no right to decry a shortage of funds for public education.

24. Strengthen the powers and responsibilities of local school boards.

Michigan public school boards should be encouraged by the Legislature, the Governor and his administration, and the State Board of Education to

  1. remove exclusive bargaining representative clauses that require union permission before employees can explore opportunities with other professional organizations;

  2. negotiate union security clauses out of their collective bargaining agreements so as to maximize the rights and freedoms of individual teachers;

  3. advise their employees of their rights under Supreme Court rulings regarding union dues for noncollective bargaining purposes;

  4. remove seniority-based salary schedules from their collective bargaining agreements and institute performance-based pay scales that reward outstanding teachers and attract the best people to the job of educating tomorrow's leaders; and

  5. competitively bid for teacher health care packages to ensure the best benefits at the lowest cost.

These and many other suggestions for improving schools through changes in school board collective bargaining policy are explained in the Mackinac Center for Public Policy study,Collective Bargaining: Bringing Education to the Table8.

25. Reform higher education

The state universities of Michigan, like many of their counterparts across the nation, are suffering from a general erosion of academic standards and a politicization of the undergraduate curriculum. The traditional core curriculum that once guaranteed that all graduating students shared in the same body of knowledge and enjoyed the same competence in cognitive skills is in tatters. An in-depth analysis of the undergraduate curriculum and recommendations for reform are discussed in the Mackinac Center for Public Policy report, Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities9.

As proposed in that 1997 report, tenure rules on Michigan's campuses should be changed to encourage excellent teaching. Alternative accreditation of English departments, writing programs, and other humanities departments and programs should be instituted. Teachers-in-training should take far fewer courses in the education departments and schools of education and far more substantial courses in their majors. The rules and regulations against political indoctrination in the classroom should be vigilantly observed and rigorously enforced. An all-campus undergraduate core curriculum should be established so that every student of the state universities of Michigan will undergo the same essential core training and gain exposure to common, high-level material in the arts and sciences.

To preserve the autonomy of the state's universities, the Mackinac Center recommends that the Legislature not attempt to meddle directly by legislation in the curricular and personnel affairs of those universities. To advance a serious, statewide discussion of these and other reforms recommended in the report, the Mackinac Center calls on the Governor to appoint a special commission for the purpose of reviewing those recommendations and examining university issues from curriculum to tenure.