Governor Snyder’s office and corporate interests conspire in “secret work group” to bring voucher system to Michigan K-12 education

    In November, I told you about an attempt on the part of the Michigan Republicans to create a parallel, for-profit education system, right alongside the Michigan public school system, unanswerable to anyone, save for an appointee of the Governor. Well, according to a report in yesterday’s Detroit News, things are progressing quickly thanks to the efforts of a “secret work group” composed of members of the Governor’s staff, representatives of the Koch-funded Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and the leaders of several for-profit corporations, like Royal Oak’s Vectorform, Ann Arbor’s InfoReady, Grand Rapids’ Huizenga Group, and Troy’s Billhighway. The secret task force of 20, according to the News, had only one educator, Paul Galbenski, the Oakland Schools business teacher who won Michigan’s Educator of the Year award in 2011, but he quit the group after coming to the realization that they weren’t looking to improve our existing schools, but to create something “outside of the Michigan public school system” altogether. The following clip comes by way of the Detroit News.

    …The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.

    The records show designers of the “value school” are in talks with Bay Mills Community College about opening a technology-centric charter school by August 2014. The school would seek to maximize the roughly $7,000 annual per-pupil funding regular schools get from taxpayers by applying “concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money.”

    Other records distributed to group members indicate they want to explore using fewer teachers and more instruction through long-distance video conferencing. Each “value school” student would receive a “Michigan Education Card” to pay for their “tuition” — similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor.

    Students could use leftover money on the “EduCard” for high school Advanced Placement courses, music lessons, sport team fees, remedial education or cyber courses, according to an outline of the advisory team’s agenda.

    Snyder confirmed Thursday the existence of the work group, but told The News “there is not a specific outcome” for the project…

    And, when they say “leftover money,” they don’t, as I understand it, mean the balance of the $7,000 which is to be allotted per-pupil at the beginning of the school year, but the balance of those funds which remain after the above-mentioned for-profit entities take their cut, which, I’ve heard, is likely to be about $2,000 per student. So, essentially, according to this vision, we’ll be educating our children for $5,000 per year, and handing $2,000 over to the companies running the system. And, if kids should happen to use less than that $5,000, they’ll be given the balance on their “EduCard”, so they can do extracurricular things like purchase online American history modules of questionable value from the likes of Mike Huckabee.

    Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Steve Cook had the following to say when made aware of the secret initiative.

    …The members of this self-defined ‘skunk works’ come from the same political and corporate interests who pushed through a tax break for themselves that was paid for by a $1 billion cut to our children’s schools. Now they’re developing a secret plan to cheapen our kids’ education and replace teachers with teleconferencing. Their skunk works moniker is very accurate – this plan truly stinks.

    Their goal to create so-called ‘value schools’ would spend less than half what we currently spend to educate a student, putting those remaining meager funds on debit cards for parents and students to purchase their learning – not unlike food stamps. Such schools would use long-distance video conferencing instead of qualified, professional teachers working with students.

    Snyder’s secret group deliberately shut out input from educators in favor of information technology companies who stand to make money off this scheme. This is a direct attempt to undermine elected school boards, principals and school employees, and it’s a slap in the face to teachers and education support professionals, who work tirelessly to educate our children every day.

    Rather than holding secret meetings with corporate special interests to concoct new school voucher schemes and value-meal education, Snyder should be making the proper funding of our kids’ schools a top priority.

    Michigan kids deserve a world-class education – not a dime store diploma.

    It’s also worth noting that the use of so-called vouchers is presently illegal according to the Michigan constitution, which clearly says that public aid cannot be directed toward non-public schools. And the voters of Michigan overwhelmingly rejected constitutional amendments in 1978 and 2000 that would have changed that. Clearly, though, Snyder and company feel as though they have a way around the little problem of illegality.

    So, just to recap… We’re presently not able to adequately educate our kids for $7,000 per pupil, so we’re going to try a radical solution. Instead of hiring better teachers, putting kids in smaller classrooms, and investing more, we’re going to fire experienced (and thus more costly) teachers, and invest significantly less. And we’re going to “empower” our students by giving them a choice as to which online edutainment service they choose to sign up for (the one sponsored by Taco Bell, or the one sponsored by Coke). The unfettered free market, you see, will solve everything. All we have to do is remove teachers from the equation.

    On a side note, I find it kind of ironic that these same Republicans who are now fighting so hard to get quality educational content streaming into the cubicles of Michigan’s students are the same ones who demand every year that we slash the budget of Sesame Street, the one program which has actually been shown to improve the intellectual aptitude of children… I hate to by cynical, but I have to wonder if maybe it’s not the quality of the content they really care about, or event the education of the students themselves, but the potential revenue that they represent.

    And, before you leave a comment about how this wasn’t being done in secret, you should know that it’s been reported that Snyder’s Chief Information Officer, David Behen, asked members of this group to communicate by way of their private email accounts, and not their state ones, which would be more easily accessible by way of FOIA. That, I think, says it all.

    Oh, and here’s a great quote, if you want a laugh. It comes from Governor Snyder himself: “Michigan’s citizens are tired of the divisive political culture in Lansing. Midnight deals, closed doors meetings, lobbyists, and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions. As Governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.”

    Lastly, I don’t have the time to dig too deeply into this at the moment, but a cursory search shows me that InfoReady CEO Bhushan Kulkarni was among the top contributors to Snyder’s campaign for Governor. Make of that what you will…

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