Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Citizens United School District

State takes over troubled schools, creates new "district".

The new statewide school district for Michigan's worst K-12 schools is being funded by $2 million in private dollars pledged this year, making it the only district in the nation supported primarily by donations, experts said Tuesday.

$400,000 will be donated from the Broad Foundation, and they will give another half-million next year. The rest? Well, they're not telling.

The state's decision to privately fund the start-up of the EAA (Education Achievement Authority) makes it the only school system in the country that is -- for now -- primarily funded by private dollars, experts said. State officials declined to identify donors other than Broad.

Several experts told the Free Press that such a large role for private donations has the burden of being transparent and also of avoiding any conflicts or situations of donors trying to exert influence and direct policy.

They are assembling a paid cabinet now, and then they will design policy for this new district, using teams from across the state. The EEA will start receiving the per-pupil foundation state money next year when they take over still-unnamed schools in the Detroit Public School system, and then they plan to move out across the state the following year.

State Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, a co-sponsor of 2009 legislation that paved the way for a state official to take control of the state's worst schools, said the private funding of a public schools system should concern parents and taxpayers.

"Behind money, there is always an agenda," he said. "And the citizens need to know the agenda."

Mike Griffith, senior policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said soliciting donations makes sense in a state that's suffering budget cuts.

However, EAA officials must make sure that the donors do not exert undue influence, he said.

"You have to make it clear, there is no quid pro quo," Griffith said. "If Joe Schmoe is a millionaire, he can't give the money and say everything it is to be used for. There has to be a wall between him and the school district's decisions."

And the Snyder administration is not going to tell us who "Joe Schmoe" is - but if this is watched closely, you will probably be able to figure it out by the policy that is set.

Will this be watched closely? Good question. Maybe on a local basis, but it's hard to believe that it will see statewide attention when you are talking about taking these schools one-by-one. Cash poor schools that are deemed as "failing" probably will see their union teachers blamed and then removed, setting the stage for charters and others to reap the rewards. It will be easy to justify under the guise of "something must be done!", and poor districts certainly don't have the funds to fight back.

Slowly but surely we could see the privatization of a lot of schools out of this, which is probably what these anonymous donors have in mind. Those kids carry quite a substantial dollar amount on their heads, taxpayer funding for the taking towards the for-profit model bottom line - and we won't know who is facilitating it.

Kind of like our elections. How is that working out for us?