The CHOICE is Clear…

Comprehensive K-12 Schools Are More Important Now Than Ever!


Oakland Schools

CLICK on IMAGE to View Podcast on YouTube; Link to SchoolTube in RESOURCES

by Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools

FULL TEXT of PODCAST: Lots of things are being marketed to us under the label of choice and as I said in a prior podcast, there is nothing wrong with CHOICE, but when it comes to schooling for children the choices had better be HIGH QUALITY.  Recent partisan platforms would have us think that educational choice was nothing more than charters, cyber schools and voucher-like programs. Actually there are many more choices in education than just those things. We need to recognize the choices that comprehensive K-12 school districts already bring to their communities.  We need to recognize what we already have in ‘choice’, because some of what is being proposed, expanded and marketed actually has the potential to harm what we have and negatively impact what is working well for the majority of our students and communities.

First, what we have and are perhaps taking for granted, are our community-governed comprehensive K-12 school districts – districts that serve ALL children from gifted to special needs, from Kindergarten through high school, providing core instruction, elective courses, co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities in many areas. We need to stop taking these schools for granted because comprehensive schooling is at risk through funding cuts and the diversion of student populations.

I was recently talking to another ISD superintendent who gave me a little history lesson on Michigan’s comprehensive K-12 school districts.  I was surprised to learn that in the 1960’s Michigan had around 2,000 school districts, many of them small K-8 schools. The Michigan legislature acted to consolidate those 2,000 school districts down to about 500.  The legislators of the 60’s said comprehensive K-12 school districts gave students more opportunities – greater choice.  They pointed out that a critical mass of students was needed in order to offer appropriate and necessary learning opportunities.

Why should we care if the comprehensive K-12 school district thought to be so important in the 1960’s is being put at risk? Well, for one, there is a lot of choice that will be lost if that system continues to be diluted.  Can you imagine an elementary school that does not meet the needs of its special education students, English language learners, gifted students – ALL of its students?  Can you imagine high schools without things like – Early College and Dual Enrollment programs, Advanced Placement courses, online learning, a variety of athletic opportunities, performing arts, STEM studies, world languages, International Baccalaureate programs, electives like engineering or business, student government and other clubs and competitions?  And what about those career pathway programs, the ones that take students from high school straight into two or four year degree programs for careers in nursing, medical technology, computer technology, engineering, building trades, culinary arts, mechatronics, agri-science, business, automotive and others.  And, finally, what would we think about comprehensive schools that did not offer alternative education programs for nontraditional learners, virtual learning options and special education programs?

Lots of choices are often taken for granted – until they are no more.

Now this is not to say that there are not challenged school districts that need to improve and need to offer choices that work better to advance learning for students. Especially those districts struggling with the one thing we have not yet figured out in public education –  and that is, how do we bring our children living in poverty to the same high achievement level as our children not living in poverty?

Although we have seen some positive trends in this area, in both community school systems and charter schools, we have not reached the level of achievement desired nor have we leveraged that improvement to all struggling schools. The recent literacy scores on the international PISA test are evidence of this. When taking the PISA scores of U.S. Schools with less than 10% of students living in poverty, we scored number 1 in the world; when taking schools with less than 25% of students living in poverty we scored number 3  (just below Finland), but when we included our high-poverty schools our ranking dropped.

Oakland Schools

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Additionally, our poverty rate for U.S. children is 23% while Finland’s is just 5%.

Oakland Schools

CLICK on Image for More Information on “Measuring Child Poverty”

So we do have to create some more effective choices and core programs for our struggling schools, but let me explain why I think creating a marketplace of choices, full of untried and untested options, will actually hurt rather than help public education overall. The high-quality choices we now have in our comprehensive K-12 schools are at risk, not because we have choices outside the system, but rather that there is not a level playing field at work with those choices.

One important factor in this un-level playing field is the funding advantage now being given to charter and cyber schools, and how that advantage unfairly dilutes the funding for comprehensive K-12 schools. I address this more fully in another podcast, but basically the funding advantage occurs because charters and cybers serve less expensive-to-educate children and do not provide things like transportation, extra-curricular programs or equal teacher benefit packages.

Another factor of this un-level playing field is the smaller number of special education students being served by charters and cybers compared to the number and severity of special needs students being served by our comprehensive K-12 schools. Reporter Christina Hoag of the Associated Press recently reported:

“…public school districts are seeing higher proportions of children with special needs due to declining enrollment and charter schools that do not accept as many kids with disabilities, especially more severe disabilities…..This raises a question of equitable access for these kids, as well as cost issues for school districts.” 

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) reported in December 2012 that “charter schools generally under-enroll special education students when compared to conventional public schools.” And the issue involves more than dollars. Detroit Free Press’s Chastity Pratt Dawsey reports “that the decline in Detroit’s overall school population has increased the percentages of its special education students, making it harder to meet high-stakes accountability goals.”

Taking all that I have mentioned so far, charter and cyber schools have a cost advantage of about 20% per student.  This is why I am surprised the charter school results are not higher than they are. I did come across an interesting piece of data that might explain the reason why. It seems the charter school funding advantage is not going into charter classrooms.  A  Michigan State University study on charter schools in our state, released in March 2012 concludes that “compared to traditional public schools, charter schools on average spend $800 more per pupil per year on administration and $1,100 less on instruction.”

So, how does this funding advantage put our comprehensive K-12 schools at risk? Here is the math: our comprehensive K-12 schools provide all the opportunities, options and choices I mentioned before, and do so at an average cost per student. That average differs from school to school across our state, but even so, some things hold true no matter where or what the average. Third grade is less expensive than tenth grade; general education is less expensive than special education, having extra and co-curricular choices are more expensive than not having them. And while charters serve mostly elementary students and enroll fewer, less-severe special education students, they still receive the average dollar allotment per child – but they have taken the child that costs less than the average to educate, leaving behind the child that costs more than the average for the comprehensive K-12 schools to educate.

When more and more of those average dollars walk away from our comprehensive K-12 schools the money that remains is severely diluted.  If not checked soon, eventually those funds will be diluted to the point that the schools will have to cut back on the choices, the alternatives and the services they offer.  Comprehensive schools will no longer be comprehensive. This is what we risk losing unless we level the playing field by matching per pupil funding to adequate per pupil expenditures.

This is why Michigan must do the School Funding Study that the State Board of Education is calling for.  We won’t know how to balance funding-to-need until we know how much a high-quality elementary experience costs, a high school experience costs, plus all of the requirements for special learners. If we are not careful about how we grow and how we fund the “choices” that exist outside the comprehensive K-12 school system, we may just lose all of the choices that exist within that system.

The “choice” is clear; supporting and improving our comprehensive K-12 schools is more important now than ever.




Oakland Schools • 2111 Pontiac Lake Road • Waterford, MI 48328-2736 • 248.209.2000

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