Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder is about to make an announcement that will move him to the prominent fore in the education reform movement not only statewide, but nationally as well. Snyder has done much already to shape the education conversation in Michigan and nationally (more on that later) and, as the former CEO of a company on the forefront of casino capitalism, he clearly has the background to weigh heavily in this particular discussion.
Snyder will most likely announce some version of “portfolio districts” as the way forward. The name “portfolio” is another misappropriated title taken from the business world. A “business portfolio” is a collection of products and services offered by a company. As applied to the education field, a district using this model would, as described by Kenneth Saltman, “…build portfolios of schools that encompass a variety of educational approaches offered by different vendors…”
Saltman has written an important report on the portfolio model, Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts” (http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf.) In this brief, Saltman outlines four characteristics of portfolio districts: “The portfolio district approach merges four strategies: 1) decentralization; 2) charter school expansion; 3) reconstituting/closing “failing” schools; and 4) test-based accountability.”
For those who are familiar with the current education reform movement, there are no surprises here. And as a pro business market fundamentalist, it is predictable that Governor Snyder would promote a portfolio model.
At the same time, it is crucial to recognize the history that Snyder has created in order to fertilize the ground for this move.
Skunk Works and the Disconnecting Schools from Local Community
In the Spring of 2013, it was revealed that Snyder had put together a secret group in order to design a plan that “lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools—something prohibited by the state Constitution.” This group was headed by Richard McLellan, a pro-voucher, pro school choice advocate. The intention of this group was to create a model that dismantled local districts in favor of a system that would allow students the choice to take their state funding to any school in the state, including virtual schools. This was what Snyder called the “anytime, anywhere, any pace” model, a techno utopian dream, and one that, as I have written before, hugely misunderstands the importance of the teacher.
And a crucial element in this plan was the disconnection of schools from the democratic accountability of local communities. Essentially, this model imagines humans as abstracted from the relationships and accountability that local community provides. This cannot be overstated.
In his important book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes, “The essential work is to create social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among citizens. When citizens care for each other, they become accountable to each other. Care and accountability create a healthy community.” It is important to understand that the portfolio model is based on a way of imagining humans as alienated from the relationships, context, and accountability that can only be provided by a community where people are known. As traditional conservatism understands, local community is significant, thus the need to “conserve” community and the values it represents. Traditional conservatives understand that as part of the fabric of their communities, local school districts actually matter in people’s lives. Snyder and other current Republicans are too often misnamed as conservatives when they in fact, like many current members of the Democrat party, are representatives of neoliberal market fundamentalism, which views everything from the one-dimensional value of money, and as a result, rips apart the social fabric.
When the Skunk Works group was outed, it was disassembled, reconstituted under a different name, and put under the control of the state superintendent. Little of this particular group has been heard from since, though iterations of its plan continue with its DNA clearly seen in the “district portfolio” plan. (For more on the history of Skunk Works, see Things Are Getting Stinky.)
The EAA and the Rise of Charters
I and others have written extensively about Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority. (See here, here and here.) For the sake of this article, simply note that the EAA has taken schools out of the Detroit Public School system and put them into a “state-wide” district of the lowest performing 5%. For a variety of reasons, those schools are all Detroit schools. (See Mary Mason and David Arsen’s important report on the establishment of the EAA. It is linked at the bottom of this piece.) It then instituted the techno utopian dream of a computer driven, “personalized” curriculum that sees little need for qualified teachers and has proved a colossal failure. Again, the EAA’s elements of misunderstanding the role of the teacher, of a techno utopian vision, and the underestimation of the importance of community are all replicated in the portfolio model.
While the EAA was on the rise, so were for profit charters in the state of Michigan. Legislation was passed that allowed for the expansion of charters in the state. Eighty percent these charters are now run for profit and Michigan has the dubious honor of leading the nation in the number of for profit charters.
Funding and Emergency Management
Throughout his term as governor, Snyder has pushed for broader establishment of Emergency Management, which assumes that local democratically elected institutions are fundamentally unable to handle their finances. It then allows an Emergency Manager to be appointed, and gives this manager autocratic control over virtually every aspect of these formerly democratic institutions. The laws that allow for this were developed and promulgated by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, and in Michigan, by the right-wing think tank , The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. (Read more here.)
In his current history of Detroit Public Schools, Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes,
“Though Public Act 436, which allegedly authorizes emergency management, allows that elected bodies taken over and supplanted may vote after 18 months to put out an EM, the courts have ruled that this means the Governor simply has to install a new and different EM. Emergency Management is a permanent feature of black cities in Michigan.
The elected and unpaid school board, though constantly tarred in the media with corruption or incompetence or simply ignored, has continued to function ‘in exile’ as a body conscientiously accountable to parents, students, and citizens, consistently resisting takeover. (Would that our city council had an ounce of such vision or fiber!) Believe it or not, the State Attorney General sued the district representatives on the board for being elected. Since they were duly seated and sworn in, the maneuver failed. Now a foundation-funded and nonprofit-orchestrated campaign seeks oust them altogether for a structure of ‘mayoral control’…Emergency management has been the blunt instrument of privatization.”
At the same time that Emergency Management has been on the rise, the financial conditions necessary for instituting it have also been on the rise. Mere coincidence? Hmm…
Since taking over as governor, Snyder has slashed business taxes to the ‘tune of 1.6 billion dollars a year…leaving a huge hole in the School Aid Fund.”
Let me quote more from Chris Savage, at Eclectablog:
“Gov. Snyder also took the unprecedented step of diverting a portion of the School Aid Fund to pay partially offset huge cuts he had made to higher education which he claims to value so much. Before Rick Snyder came into office, this had never happened before. How much of a hit did the School Aid Fund take from this diversion of money to higher ed?
$400,000,000 a year.
So, let’s do the math here:
Yup, that’s a billion dollars, kids. Actually it’s a bit more because the hit the Student Aid Fund took from the business tax cut is MORE than $600,000,000.”
That’s a lot of money that schools aren’t getting.
And the result?
Fifty seven school districts in the state of Michigan are now operating under a deficit.
To put it another way, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for being taken over by emergency management.
Or, remembering Wylie-Kellerman’s frame, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for privatization.
Follow the logic.
Connect the dots.
So this is the current context for Snyder’s upcoming announcement. This is the groundwork that has been laid, some transparently, some not so much.
But with this in mind, it’s at least clear that a pattern has been established so there should be no more surprises.
Be sure to read Mary L. Mason and David Arsen’s report, Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority and the Future of Public Education in Detroit: The Challenge of Aligning Policy Design and Policy Goals: http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf