Send the Cash, Keep the Change

On October 5, Governor Engler presented a plan for comprehensive education reform in an address to a Joint Convention of the Michigan Legislature. "Real change," he said, "means not just more politics, but more principle. Not just talking about putting kids first, but doing it."

Two weeks earlier, the U.S. Department of Education released a survey which revealed that 90 million adult Americans--nearly half the adult population--possess only rudimentary literacy skills. With that as a powerful and self-evident argument for "real change," one might expect that those who profess to know the most about education would be leading the charge. But if initial reactions from the public school establishment to Governor Engler's address are any indication, Michigan's educational "Berlin Wall" won't be coming down as easily as the one of concrete and steel.

One of the main divisions in the education debate concerns which should come first: quality reforms or replacing revenues. No business decides first what its price will be before it decides what its product is, so the argument that reform deserves our primary attention would seem to be a strong one. As a general rule, those who are comfortable with the status quo will emphasize replacing revenues; those who see the need for genuine reform, like the Governor, will put money in second place. That describes the context of the debate in the month since the Governor's address.

Reformers say, "Change the system so schools can work better, and we will be happy to fund them." Unfortunately, many of those in the education industry are saying, "Send the cash, keep the change."

One such group is the Michigan Education Association, which has insisted from the beginning that funding be put ahead of quality. In spite of the fact that spending for education is up 25 percent after inflation since 1970 and that the Engler plan restores virtually all of the revenue cut by the state's elimination of property taxes, MEA President Julius Maddox nonetheless declared the schools to be "woefully underfunded."

Maddox's response was not exactly unexpected. As president of the state's largest teacher union, his principal purpose is to secure the highest possible wages and benefits for his members. His organization opposes parental choice, opposes charter schools, opposes saving money through privatizing support functions, and opposes making it easier to reward good teachers for merit or discharge bad ones for poor performance. It even opposes competitive bidding for teacher health insurance, which would reduce costs and allow more dollars to reach the classroom.

This reactionary, preserve-the-status-quo stance has plenty of allies in the public school establishment. Many administrators recognize that meaningful change will require changes in their own routine. When the Governor talks about allowing the people who pay the bills to have a little more choice, or when he speaks of competition and accountability, they take it as a personal attack. It seems that no one, not even the Governor, can criticize "the system" without legions of school people responding, "Oh, he's bashing me again."

By any conceivable definition, "a monopoly of mediocrity" (the Governor's words) is precisely what public education has become. Yet one school superintendent declared, "That's certainly an insult to all of the people who have worked so hard to improve education in this state." The Governor talks about liberating teachers and administrators from stifling rules and regulations so they can perform at their best, but that counts for little with some people.

In his speech, the Governor produced a sawed-off shotgun that a youngster had carried into a classroom. He declared that Michigan should not tolerate roughnecks endangering the lives and learning of innocent children. But the response from a spokesman for the Saginaw school district was to denounce the gun display as a "racially-biased slap" at urban schools. Parents might want to know what makes opposing guns in school a racist position.

Typical of many administrators on the matter of parental choice was the reaction of the Meridian School District superintendent in Midland County. He called choice "a path to elitism" and told a local reporter, "Those people who are going to be most able to pick up their kids and move them to a different district are only going to be the most affluent people." His answer, incredibly, is to reaffirm the status quo and deny choice to everybody!

Currently, the wealthy have far more choice than low and middle income people. They can afford private schools or to physically move to a district with better schools. Broadening choice to include the non-wealthy is, in fact, just the opposite of elitism.

What makes the Meridian superintendent's remark all the more mistaken is that two years ago, his district tried to prevent the son of a low-income couple from attending a school in a nearby district. The Meridian board refused to release the gifted second-grader so that state aid could follow him to another public school that offered a gifted program. The system was deemed more important than the child.

The Governor is running head-on into the same buzz-saw of backward, self-interested, anti-change behavior that has for so long frustrated anyone who wants real change in public education. This is the way subsidized, unaccountable monopoly works: it treats its clients as hostages, not customers; it demands to be fed more of other people's money without end; and it throws up a smokescreen of the most absurd allegations when confronted with evidence of its own mediocrity.

Send the cash, keep the change. If that sort of thinking prevails, the children of our state will be the real losers.