Contents of this issue:

  • Study: More students opt for online learning
  • Lansing expands virtual academy
  • River Rouge teachers agree to 15 percent pay cut
  • Some districts add to fund balance
  • Saginaw debates effect of privatization on retirement costs

Study: More Students Opt for Online Learning 

MIDLAND, Mich. — Thousands of Michigan students are now enrolled in online courses as part of their primary and secondary education, and evidence indicates that online learners perform as well or better academically in virtual classrooms as in traditional ones, according to a study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The Mackinac Center published “Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools” last week, authored by Michael Van Beek, the center’s education policy director. Van Beek said his review indicated that online instruction is growing in Michigan, that evidence shows it is academically effective, and that virtual learning can reduce education costs. The Mackinac Center also publishes Michigan Education Digest.

In related news, the Lansing School District is expanding its virtual academy program as a way to boost graduation rates. (See next item.)

The Mackinac Center study recommends expanding virtual learning by allowing students to enroll in more than two full-time online courses without needing a “seat-time waiver,” as is currently required. It also suggests that the state Legislature reconsider the current limits on the number of virtual charter schools in Michigan and on the number of students that they can enroll.

Van Beek said his review of national research and evidence from other states showed that students perform as well or better in virtual learning environments and that virtual learning can reduce education costs.

“Virtual learning may not be right for everyone,” Van Beek said in a press release announcing the study and accompanying video. “Still, I would estimate there are more than 20,000 course enrollments in online K-12 programs offered through Michigan Virtual School, Michigan’s virtual charter schools and dozens of single- and multi-district programs, including GenNET, a major initiative of the Genesee Intermediate School District.”

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools,” Jan. 27, 2010

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “A Virtual Learning Revolution,” (video), Jan. 27, 2010

Lansing Expands Virtual Academy

LANSING, Mich. — An online learning academy has expanded to three Lansing high schools in an effort to increase graduation rates and reach out to dropouts, according to the Lansing State Journal.

The Lansing School District is working with contractors AdvancePath and American Academy on the programs, which began last fall at Sexton High School and expanded last week to two more schools, the Journal reported.

Two learning models are being used, one in which students complete their work in a computer lab under teacher supervision, and the other in which students can work off site, but meet regularly with mentors, according to the Journal.

"It's a culture change, and if you ask me, we are ready for the culture change," Sergio Keck, director of specialized programs for the Lansing School District, told the Journal.

"We know there is a high percentage of kids that have dropped out of our schools, and we're hoping this is one of the avenues that can help them graduate," Keck said.

A newly released study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy notes that online instruction is increasing throughout Michigan public schools. (See item above.)

The Lansing State Journal, "Mid-Michigan schools look for new ways to give students path to success," January 24, 2011

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Virtual Learning Can Improve Student Outcomes and Save Money," Jan. 27, 2011

River Rouge Teachers Agree to 15 Percent Pay Cut

RIVER ROUGE, Mich. —  Teachers in River Rouge Public Schools have agreed to a 15 percent salary cut and a cap on the district contribution to health insurance premiums in order to resolve a $1.2 million deficit, according to The (Southgate) News-Herald.

The three-year agreement between the district and the River Rouge Education Association takes effect beginning with the 2011-2012 school year, The News-Herald reported.

The district was supposed to submit a deficit-elimination plan to the state by December 15 or face losing state aid, but was granted an extension, The News-Herald reported.

"We’re hopeful that the state will approve the plan,” said Janice Meek, the district’s director of business and finance, according to the report.

Teachers also will not advance on the salary schedule during the three-year period, including not receiving additional pay for completing higher degrees, The News-Herald reported.

The (Southgate) News-Herald, "Teachers take salary cut to help with deficit," Jan. 29, 2011

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan School Databases, "Master agreement between the Board of Education of the School District of the City of River Rouge and the River Rouge Education Association/MEA, 2007-2011."

Some Districts Add to Fund Balance

GENESEE COUNTY, Michigan — Genesee County school districts have less combined savings than they did five years ago, but some individual districts have more, according to a review by The Flint Journal.

The Journal pointed to employee layoffs, school closings, enrollment swings and state aid uncertainty as things affecting school budgets during the time period.

The combined fund balances in the county's 21 local districts stood at nearly $76 million as of the end of 2009-2010; down by $25 million from 2004-2005 but up in some districts, The Journal reported.

Beecher Public Schools finished the year with a fund balance of $1.42 million, up from about $771,000 the previous year and a change from years of running a deficit, The Journal reported.

School accountants recommend that districts maintain a fund balance equal to about 15 percent of the operating budget, in order to maintain cash flow and avoid borrowing for basic expenses like payroll, according to The Journal.

Some lawmakers have tried capping district reserves, saying schools should spend money on students, not save it, The Journal reported.

“I don’t think any district wants to use up all their rainy day fund, because that is their only buffer that they have out there,” Kim Lindsay, a partner with Flint accounting firm Lewis & Knopf, which does school financial audits, told The Journal.

The Flint Journal, "Several Genesee County school districts increased fund balance in recent years; amounts still down more than $25 million," Jan. 29, 2011

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Proposal Would Punish Prudent School Districts," April 1, 2010

Saginaw Debates Effect of Privatization on Retirement Costs

SAGINAW, Mich. — While the president of the Saginaw City School District teachers union says that privatizing support services is not an effective way to address high retirement costs for school employees, an official with the Michigan Association of School Boards disagrees, according to The Saginaw News.

Michigan school districts are paying an amount equal to 20.66 percent of employees' salaries into the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System this year to cover the cost of a monthly pension and health care for retired school employees, The News reported. That's up from 16.94 percent in 2009-2010.

Mary Ann Dupuis, president of the Saginaw Education Association, said at a recent school board meeting that privatizing support services decreases the number of people who contribute to the state retirement system and forces those remaining to pay even more, The News reported.

Tom White, assistant director of labor relations for the MASB, said that while privatization of some employees would increase retirement costs for those remaining, the savings on privatization would outweigh those higher costs, The News reported. 

White said it currently costs a “typical school district” about $1,000 per student for employee-retirement costs, The News reported, and questioned if districts should keep sustaining such benefits.

“The rate could easily go from 20.66 percent to 24.66 percent in the next school year ... and that’s a good-case scenario — it could be worse,” White said, according to The News.

The Saginaw News, "Teacher-union chief: If school districts want to cut retirement costs, don't privatize services," Jan. 28, 2011

Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "Michigan's Public-Employee Retirement Benefits: Benchmarking and Managing Benefits and Costs," October 25, 2010

MICHIGAN EDUCATION DIGEST is a service of Michigan Education Report (http://www.educationreport.org), an online newspaper published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (http://www.mackinac.org), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute.

Contact Managing Editor Lorie Shane at med@educationreport.org

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