Panel calls for free preschool, community college

Kim Kozlowski, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Detroit — Gov. Rick Snyder joined the 21st Century Education Commission Friday to present a highly anticipated report to transform public education in Michigan with a bold plan that includes free preschool, free community college and facility support for poorer communities.

But the 25-member commission, created last year by Snyder, “was unable to achieve consensus” on the raging debate on how to create a balance between public and charter schools.

The plan is aimed at addressing an urgent issue: Michigan children are falling behind as early as fourth grade and it is especially glaring for students of color, students in special education and students living in poverty, according to the report. But Michigan’s higher-income and white students are also not performing well either and rank among the worst when compared with the rest of the nation.

“If we are going to have a P-20 education system that truly prepares our children for the 21st century in Michigan and the world, we must be willing to admit where that system is falling short today,” Snyder said.

Doug Ross, president of American Promise Schools, added there are many countries and states that have figured out how to educate their children better.

“Michigan now has one of the poorest performing education systems in the advanced world in terms of our competitors in Europe, Asia and Canada,” Ross said. “We took our eye off the ball. We were satisfied. We tended to think it’s a poor kid problem. It’s a Detroit problem.

“Then when you look at the data, you say, ‘It’s a Birmingham problem.’ Birmingham’s kids are not being prepared as well as Russian kids. It’s time to say, there’s a crisis.”

The plan presents 32 recommendations for improving students performance and four goals to be reached by 2025, including having 70 percent or more of 25-year-olds in Michigan complete a college degree, occupational certificate, apprenticeship or formal skill training. One recommendation was to eliminate the State Board of Education or allow the governor to appoint its members instead of statewide voters.

The commission is calling for free, universal access to both preschool and community colleges in Michigan, ideas that would essentially turn the state’s public K-12 system into a P-14 one.

“We really have to reframe how we think about education in Michigan, starting with preschool and extend beyond high school,” said Ann Kalass, CEO of Starfish Family Services and a commission member. “For our long term economic success ... we need to think more broadly, we need to start earlier and we need to get people trained in a way that they can fill jobs in Michigan.”

Reaction mixed

The state’s two teachers unions praised many report recommendations, especially universal preschool and facility support for poor schools, while at least one Republican State Board of Education member blasted the document.

“But until we make adequate funding a priority and ensure the voices of front-line educators are heard in crafting education policy, none of those recommendations can become reality,” Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook said in a statement.

State Board of Education member Tom McMillin, a former state representative, criticized the proposed reform options for the state board as an attempt to consolidate power over a more top-down state education system.

“As a state board member, I will continue to fight for local control of education — working to push as much authority out of Lansing and to empower local schools, teachers and parents, who truly know what is best for the children in the classrooms,” McMillin said in a statement.

The state currently provides free preschool to some low-income 4-year-olds based on risk and financial need. The report calls on Snyder and the state Legislature to seek increase funding to ensure all students “arrive to kindergarten ready to learn.”

“Preschool is a proven strategy to improve school readiness, and the GSRP — Michigan’s homegrown preschool program — is among the best in the country,” according to the report.

The initiatives would cost more than $2 billion a year, including up to an estimated $400 million for universal community colleges, $390 million for universal preschool, up to $200 million to assist poor communities improve buildings and $74 million for charter school facilities.

Michigan currently ranks 24th in the country in total per-pupil spending nationwide, according to the report, down from No. 8 in 2000. The report acknowledged the political difficulties of raising new revenue but said declining resources relative to other state is “likely a cause” of Michigan’s poor academic performance.

“Our current level of investment puts the state’s future at risk,” said the report.

Likewise, post high school training is a “necessary step to fully participating in the economy and democracy,” according to the commission, which said Michigan should move to fund universal access for all recent high school graduates and returning adult students.

To qualify for expanded state support, community colleges would first have to draw down any available federal grant aid.

Community college is already relatively affordable because they are supported by local property taxes, but “it is still out of reach for some citizens,” according to the report.

“Post-secondary education is becoming increasingly essential to earning a living wage. Michigan needs to make post-secondary educational opportunities available to every citizen so they can fully participate in society.”

The report includes broad recommendations to revisit K-12 funding models, including targeted funding for disadvantaged students and creating merit-based scholarships for students seeking four-year degrees at public universities.

Charter school debate

The commission did little to settle the raging debate over how to build up traditional public schools while maintaining student choice and charter schools. It outlined a series of goals but acknowledged it was “unable to achieve consensus on the policies to achieve those goals.”

But Grand Valley President Thomas Haas, chairman of the 21st Century Education Commission said there was consensus on facility investment, whether traditional or charter schools.

“We need to invest in the infrastructure and the technology,” Haas said. “We want to provide an environment for choice. That did come through in consensus.”

Michigan has 540 local school districts and 302 charter schools that serve 1.5 million students. More than 146,000 students now attend charter schools, and more than 123,000 students attend public schools of choice outside the district in which they live.

“Across the state, more schools are fighting to attract a declining number of students, challenging academic quality and creating fiscal pressure in some schools and districts,” commissioners wrote.

The panel offered a series of ideas including a statewide needs assessment to look at the quantity and quality of schools, creating a “schools certificate of need commission” or phasing out the state allowance funding for a traditional public school that loses a student through choice rather than eliminating it all at once.

“To be clear: None of these ideas garnered the support necessary to be included as recommendation,” said the report. “They are offered here to enhance future policy debates.”

Commissioners did agree on at least one charter school policy, asserting that the state should provide them with direct funding to help purchase or renovate facilities if they prove there is a need and meet financial transparency requirements.

Traditional public school districts can ask local voters for property tax millages for building and other infrastructure projects, an option charters do not have.

The recommendation would be “a huge improvement on the status quo,” Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said in a statement.

“Education is a public good,” said Haas said. “Our report is a blueprint. It is not a checklist ... to lead us forward for the next ten years.”

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com