The Engler Education Legacy

As the era of Gov. John Engler passes into Michigan history, it would be well to take note of the administration's significant legacy with regard to education policy.

Under Engler's leadership, Michigan became one of the foremost states in education reform - 11th in the country, according to the Heritage Foundation's annual report on school choice in the states. He leaves office with a record of progress few will be able to match: a charter school movement that is alive and well, a more equitable per-pupil school funding formula that dramatically reduced property taxes and guaranteed funding for all public schools, and a public school choice program that provides incentive for schools to compete for students.

Narrowly elected in 1990, Engler faced widespread public dissatisfaction with escalating property taxes to pay for schools, many low-performing schools, and little incentive for improvement. Calling Michigan's education system a "monopoly of mediocrity" early in his term, Engler set out to provide a better education for Michigan students.

Proposal A's origin: Lower taxes, guaranteed funding for schools

In the early 1990s, Michigan's property tax burden was 35 percent above the national average due in part to frequent and irregular local millage elections for education. Engler's administration, along with the Legislature, made attempts to lower property taxes for several years.

In 1993, the Michigan Legislature succeeded in drafting a plan to cut property taxes for education, a move which the New York Times called "the nation's most dramatic shift in a century" for school funding. Michigan voters approved the plan, Proposal A, as a constitutional amendment in 1994.

Proposal A shifted the majority of school funding from local property taxes to the state sales tax, which increased from four to six cents per dollar.

The plan cut property taxes by a third, alleviated equity gaps in per-pupil funding between districts, and established a per-pupil funding guarantee for public schools.

Since the inception of Proposal A, revenues for public schooling have increased by more than 50 percent, from $4,200 to $6,700 per student - double the inflation rate.

The plan's per-pupil funding system, when combined with the public school choice plan enacted later, created the level of competition we see today among Michigan school districts.

Accountability by choice: Charters and public school choice

In late 1993 and early 1994, Engler signed into law provisions allowing the creation of public school academies, or charter schools. At the time, these laws were some of the most progressive education developments in the country, and they have since been replicated in other states.

Though opponents of greater school choice succeeded in placing a "cap" on the number of charter schools that could be opened, Michigan's charter school program now boasts over 180 schools, serving 66,000 students. Long waiting lists at a majority of charter schools attest to the need for more charters, and are putting pressure on the Legislature to raise the cap.

In 1996, Engler's administration implemented a limited public schools-of-choice program that allows students in participating districts to transfer to schools other than their district-assigned school. Students may attend other schools in their own districts or schools in neighboring districts. In the 2000-01 school year, over 80 percent of Michigan schools participated in the program and 33,506 students took advantage of the choice options.

The competition from charters and among public schools has spurred improvement in public schools around the state. The increased choice options allow parents to hold schools accountable for performance. If one school fails to provide a quality education, the parent may send their student (and per-pupil funding) to a charter or other public school.

One example: Faced with competition from four nearby charter schools, Dearborn City Public Schools adopted new art, technology, and a host of other programs in addition to extending the school year and responding to parent requests. In doing so, the district increased its enrollment from 14,229 students in 1994-95 to 17,479 in 2000-01. The growth brought millions of additional dollars into district schools.

"We welcome competition," former Dearborn schools superintendent Dr. Jeremy Hughes said. "The reforms we've enacted would not have happened, at least not as fast, without competition."

Accountability by force: State takeover of school districts

Citing dismal student performance, Engler pushed a state takeover of Detroit schools in 1999, shifting decision-making power from the elected school board to then-Mayor Dennis Archer and an appointed board. In 1999, the Legislature also moved to take over Inkster schools, allowing Edison Schools, an educational management firm, to take over operation of the district.

Since then, Detroit schools have seen the implementation of a district-wide improvement plan, launched by Detroit schools CEO Kenneth Burnley. The plan includes new technology initiatives, efforts direct more money to the classroom through privatization of non-instructional services, and an active public relations campaign to promote the district and draw new students to Detroit schools.

Unfortunately, while the state takeovers have produced greater accountability, they have yet to improve student performance. Detroit and Inkster district student test scores have remained stagnant, even declining in some subjects, since 1999.

Other issues and accomplishments

In 1999, the Kids First! Yes! school voucher initiative was launched, which Engler publicly denounced, saying it had "no hope of passing." His disapproval led to a division within the Republican party - some siding with Engler and the rest, including then-Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus - supporting the voucher proposal. The next year brought defeat of the measure by a greater than 2-to-1 margin. Engler's criticism of the voucher plan was a major factor in its defeat and polarized the issue of school vouchers, making promotion of expanded school choice options more difficult for education reform advocates.

Also in 2000, Governor Engler touted and encouraged the development of Michigan Virtual High School (MIVHS), which allows students to take high school and college courses over the Internet. The program allows students in rural districts and home schooled students access to courses that might not be available to them otherwise. MIVHS also offers Advanced Placement and courses to high school students around the state.

This year, Engler signed a bill that forced school property tax payments to be paid in the summer, avoiding (or at least postponing) a state budget crisis and guaranteeing that schools would have funding before the academic year began.

Engler's Critics and Failures

Proposal A did not pass without criticism, nor did charter schools or public school choice. In fact, all were passed in the face of extreme opposition; opposition that successfully watered down the latter two measures, and is still attempting to dilute the first.

For example, the recent election season brought much discussion of "tweaking" Proposal A to allow increased taxes for education.

On the charter front, despite the benefits to thousands of students, opponents still are trying to contain the movement by limiting the number of schools allowed by law. The issue has exacerbated the partisan split in the Legislature and even created rifts within the Michigan Republican Party.

Engler failed to fully implement a state-wide school accountability program and watched accountability plans languish in the state board of education for years.

In his 2002 State of the State address, Engler blamed the board: "I don't have to wait until 2006 to give this State Board their final grade on accountability. They deserve an 'F.'"

Overall, many education leaders say John Engler has been one of the most effective governors for the state and in the country.

Mike Flanagan, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, exclaimed, "This year all kids in the state will have at least $6,700 of support. Who could have ever imagined! Gov. Engler deserves a lot of credit for getting us closer to equity for all kids."

Engler leaves behind an education system that is still in need of expanded school choice options and accountability for student achievement; nevertheless, his noteworthy efforts on behalf of Michigan students and taxpayers leave large shoes to fill for his successor, Governor-elect Jennifer Granholm. With Proposal A and Michigan's limited school choice programs as his primary legacy, Engler will go down in history as one of the country's most innovative education reformers.