An angry young student stood up before a crowd in the Flint Public Library this spring to say that she, for one, has heard enough bad news about her school district.
"We get all the crap. We’re always in the news for the negative stuff," she said heatedly. She was referring to Howell Public Schools, the Livingston County district that has earned state and, at times, national headlines in the past two years for vocal community debates on the content of books, a diversity flag and even school music policies. What this high school student might not know is that Howell is not alone. School districts across the country are doing battle over religious expression in schools, content of books, teaching of evolution and more, according to a 2007 study by the Cato Institute, a nonprofit public policy research institute headquartered in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, the district is in a heated battle with its own teachers over health insurance, another case in which it is not alone. Districts across Michigan report this spring that health insurance benefits are the major stumbling block to signing teacher contracts.
"Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict," published by the Cato Institute in January, documents almost 150 cases in the 2005-2006 school year across the country in which people of different backgrounds and beliefs were at odds over what and how local public schools should teach students.
That comes as no surprise to Vicky Fyke, a Howell resident who is head of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education. LOVE made headlines when its members attempted to have several books removed from the Howell High School curriculum because of sexual content and profanity.
"People started emailing us from all over the United States," Fyke said. "Kansas, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina. People are going through the same kinds of things we were. It’s nice to know you’re not alone in your fight."
Books, Diversity Flag Among Controversies
The fight in Howell has been a long and complicated one, but two issues that have created ongoing controversy involve the hanging of a rainbow flag in Howell High School and the use of several books in high school English classes that Fyke and the LOVE organization say contain profanity and graphic sexuality.
The rainbow flag was put up by the school’s Diversity Club, but has since been taken down. Members of Fyke’s organization say it is a recognized symbol of support for gay rights. The books, "The Freedom Writers’ Diary," a collection of essays by Los Angeles high school students; "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison; and "Black Boy" by Richard Wright, were approved by the district’s curriculum council for use in high school classes. LOVE attracted statewide attention when it asked legal authorities to determine if the books violate obscenity laws. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said the debate is a matter for the local prosecutor, and the county prosecuting attorney, David Morse, said no laws have been broken by use of the books. The books do not violate obscenity law, according to a review by the Detroit offices of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.
The rulings don’t change Fyke’s opinion that the books don’t belong in high school English classes. "Basically, I guess the door is open for any of that kind of material," she said.
Howell residents also have been divided in recent years on the content of sex education instruction, a proposed elective course on the Bible and on a policy controlling the amount of Christian music allowed at school concerts. Heated arguments over district issues take place regularly in online blogs and in the online comment forum sponsored by the local newspaper, the Daily Press & Argus.
Some Conflicts Insoluble, Author Says
The Cato study found eight common categories of argument in public schools across the country: intelligent design, freedom of expression, book banning, multiculturalism, mandated integration, sex education, treatment of homosexuality and religion.
In some cases, the values that people hold on these subjects are so diverse that they cannot coexist peacefully in a single school system, said study author Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. "They’re inherently in conflict and can never be otherwise."
Either the fighting continues indefinitely — in school or in court — or the opponents compromise on a watered-down version of instruction, he said.
"Sometimes you do get that compromise and you get these textbooks that don’t teach anything, and so neither side wins," he said. McCluskey thinks a better solution would be to offer more choices in education, so that parents can send their child to a school that shares their moral and educational goals without having to pay taxes for a school that does not. The idea that public education brings together children from diverse backgrounds and with diverse values, and molds them into a unified citizenry is a myth, McCluskey asserts in his report. Rather, public education "often forces people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs into political combat."
In one 19th century case cited in his report, Catholics and Protestants disagreed over which version of the Bible to use in Philadelphia public schools. The argument spilled over into violent clashes in the streets and ultimately led to a declaration of martial law. McCluskey writes that the feud subsided mainly because Catholics opened their own, separate schools and because other issues, including the Civil War, pushed the matter to the background.
McCluskey’s report points out conflict in other Michigan districts as well, among them divided opinion about content of sex education curricula, teaching of intelligent design, use of the term "Americans" and allowing single-sex schools. Since the 150 cases noted in his analysis are drawn from news accounts, it’s likely there are even more that go unreported in smaller schools that do not draw media attention, he said.
Howell History a Factor
Charges of racism come up frequently in the debate in Howell. The community was in the media in 2005 when a local store owner held an auction — attended by shoppers as well as protesters — of Ku Klux Klan memorabilia. The following year there was another showing of memorabilia, this time a traveling exhibit called "Hateful Things," which was part of a diversity awareness program. There is a history of KKK activity in Livingston County, according to published accounts. Robert Miles, a former Klan Grand Dragon, lived in Cohoctah Township, north of Howell, where he burned crosses and held KKK rallies. He died in 1992.
Opponents of the LOVE organization say it promotes intolerant ideas and represents only a minority of residents in the community. A group of Howell students and teachers traveled to Flint last spring to hear a presentation by Erin Gruwell, the former Los Angeles teacher whose students put together "Freedom Writers’ Diary." The presentation, also attended by Michigan Education Report, included a forum at which one Howell resident stood up and said she was aware of the history of KKK meetings in the community. "Howell isn’t that way any more, but there is a certain group that would like to continue that history," she said. "Against gays. Against blacks."
Steve Manor, president of the Livingston County Diversity Council, told Michigan Education Report that he helped to organize the student Diversity Club in the late 1980s. Reports of bullying and harassment of gay students have been made in the district in the past, he said. The club’s goal is not to promote one lifestyle, but to protect all students, he said.
"There are people who believe if you protect, you must also be promoting," he told Michigan Education Report, but, "You can protect somebody without endorsing their lifestyle."
Manor said he is satisfied that due process was followed in the book debate, and that the school board should have the final say on such matters. "That’s why I elect a school board," he said. "That’s a process by which we run a government."
"It’s easy to paint someone into a corner and call them intolerant and extreme," school board member Wendy Day said. "I would like to have some really good dialogue, and have some win-win solutions, but Howell doesn’t seem to have found a way to do that." Elected to the board in 2006 with support from the LOVE organization, Day has drawn criticism because she is a home-school parent and is viewed as a LOVE supporter.
Superintendent Says School Board Key
Howell Superintendent Charles Breiner, who is in the running to become superintendent of the Saginaw Intermediate School District, agrees that Howell is home to people with a diversity of values. "Everyone is represented along a continuum and you have to decide where to operate along that continuum," he said. "It’s not easy to sift out everyone’s thought or opinion," he continued. "I answer to the majority of the board (of education) to get to the consensus."
The one constant in the district has been change, he pointed out. Livingston County is considered one of the fastest growing counties in Michigan. The Howell school district added 2,500 students in the past 12 years. That has meant new buildings, teachers, staff and students. But enrollment slowed just as the district completed construction on a second high school, and now Howell may have more space than it needs or can afford to operate, making the building program another topic of debate.
When voters in Howell approved a bond issue to pay for the new high school, the plan was to assign about 1,300 students to each school and still have room for future growth. "Our numbers are not growing as they were prior to this economic downturn," Breiner said, so the current plan is to send all the students to the new Parker High School while the district renovates Howell High School next year. "Then we’ll wait and see where the funding is," he added. If there is sufficient funding, both high schools will open.
"We have rapidly moved from a rural school district to … around the 28th largest," Breiner said, something many local residents "would not have imagined happening in their lifetimes."
"I think Howell has sort of an identity crisis," Day told Michigan Education Report. "Public schools have a tough job. They have a lot of families and values to embrace. ... Where do we find the balance?"
Breiner said the silver lining in the ongoing debates may be that more people are speaking their minds about the future of the district.
"If there’s anything in the past two years that has been good, it’s that there’s been a lot of discussion taking place," he said. "That’s not a bad thing."
Howell also plans to implement a new way of delivering high school education in the fall of 2007, including a program of simultaneous college enrollment that would lead to an associate degree at the end of four years of high school, and flexible scheduling that would allow high school students to take classes on alternate days, weekends, biweekly, during summer vacation or on-line.
Breiner suggested that taking part in school board elections is one way people can change a district. "It’s certainly a striking way for people to say, ‘This is where we want our organization to be.’"
Parental Choice As Solution
The Cato Institute’s McCluskey doesn’t believe school board elections will solve the underlying conflicts in schools. At best, it will shift power from one side to the other, he said.
"Rather than let people get the education they want right now through school choice, let’s fight it out for years," he said, describing the current process. "We shouldn’t say that the best solution for education is to have the group with the most political power force itself on minorities. … Factions on all sides really do believe they are absolutely right and no one should be allowed to think differently."
"People have to be aware that there is a better way to get an education without all the fighting," he said. "We need to explain to people that historically, education was delivered much more by parental choice."
Day said she supports more choice in education, but pointed out that those choices are sometimes limited. Not all parents can teach their children at home, drive their children to a charter public school or afford private school tuition, she said.
"We have what is generally recognized as a very successful school system," Manor said. He does not believe more variety of schools or more choice in education would resolve the issue. "I don’t think it’s healthy for people to trot off and start their own little institution. We’d become little enclaves of little isolated groups."
Fyke said her grandchildren no longer attend Howell Public Schools, but that she feels a responsibility to other students. "This loud voice is going to continue."
Health Insurance Another Issue
Amid other controversies, the Howell Board of Education and Howell Education Association are at odds over teacher health insurance. The two groups have not reached agreement on a new employment contract since the last one expired in June 2006. The board recently voted unanimously to name itself as the policyholder of the district’s health insurance plan, rather than the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a third-party, nonprofit insurance administrator formed by the Michigan Education Association. MESSA previously contracted with the district to sell it teacher health benefits, but has said it will not continue to do so if the district holds the policy. Disagreement on the insurance issue has brought hundreds of Howell teachers to school board meetings in recent months. The HEA represents about 485 educators.
MESSA provides insurance for a majority of Michigan school districts, but some districts in recent years have chosen other providers as a cost-saving measure. A news release from the Howell school board said it believes it can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on health insurance and continue to provide comprehensive benefits without MESSA, but teachers have argued otherwise. HEA President Doug Norton told the local newspaper that teachers are concerned that, as policyholder, the district will change provisions of the insurance coverage at will.
In a flier mailed to area residents in late March, the HEA said that it has proposed a plan that would save the district $1.4 million from 2006 to 2009, including an offer to accept lower wage increases in exchange for retaining MESSA. Teachers also would contribute $600 per year to their own coverage costs. The board had offered a two-year contract with pay increases and health coverage with no out-of-pocket premium costs to HEA members. The plan also would add more step increases for the longest-tenured teachers and cash payments for teachers who opt not to participate in the health insurance plan.
Howell is not the only district arguing over MESSA specifically or the cost of teacher health insurance in general. Gov. Jennifer Granholm told the Detroit Free Press in late March that she is willing to consider options to reduce the cost of health and retirement benefits for teachers. She said she has told the Michigan Education Association, a staunch political ally, that long-term changes will be considered.
"The MEA knows there will be a request for reform, health care, pension or whatever," Granholm was quoted in the article.