Unbundling Public Education Doesn’t Add Up!


Oakland Schools

by Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools


FULL TEXT of PODCAST: December 2012 was a pretty scary time for Michigan public education, its schools and the students it serves.  We saw lots of bumper sticker ideas for improving education – things like “choice”, “unbundling”, “selective schools”, “dollars following children” and “parent triggers”.

Oakland SchoolsFortunately, wisdom prevailed and these untried, experimental – even radical – proposals did not pass the lame duck legislative session.

So we made it to January, but the question remains: what will drive us forward? There are still things that need to be addressed in terms of providing high quality public education, and doing so with transparency in public funding.

I have a few thoughts on what needs to be addressed in our quest to sustain what is right about public education, while making improvements where needed.  But to keep these podcasts concise and brief, I am going to speak to only one matter at a time.


In this podcast, I will focus on the concept of  dollars following children. Sounds like a simple idea on the face of it – but as with most things, the devil is in the detail. Some of the ideas for “dollars following children” mentioned in the Oxford Plan to revise public school funding were very radical, and were not supported by any well thought-out course of action for the many details that would have to be considered.

For one thing there is no specific dollar amount spent per child in Michigan’s comprehensive K-12 school districts. Because our school districts are comprehensive, many different dollar amounts are spent on different students. Students in 3rd grade cost less than students in 11th grade. For example, a third grader who is learning the content without needing extra help, who enjoys core instruction from a classroom teacher, participates in art, music and physical education in a basic elementary building with classrooms, a library, gymnasium, and cafeteria with maybe a stage.

The 11th grader is, let’s say, an AP physics student, who is getting dual credit for a math class, who is taking an extra online course, who runs track, plays in the band and is on the debate team. That student’s high school provides classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, track and field, science labs, after school activities, travel teams, foreign language labs, and maybe a pool if they have a swim team.

That 3rd grader is going to cost less per year while that 11th grader is going to cost more per year.  Now, if either of those students needed special education services, like speech therapy or a reading teacher or a study guide – that cost would do up significantly, depending on the special services required.

Oakland Schools

What if the student was learning English for the first time? More dollars per year would be needed. Some students require counseling services, special disciplinary interventions, occasional tutoring, enrichment and acceleration – you get the idea.  No fixed price fits each student; when comprehensive K-12 school districts talk about what they spend per pupil, it is an average.  That average may differ from school to school depending on lots of things, but the fact that some students cost more to educate than others is always true.

So, when we voucher a student with state funding at, say, $7,00 per child – like the Oxford Plan proposed to do – we are giving a parent a check that will either overpay for the education needed, or underpay.  But worse, when that $7,000 walks out the door with a child whose educational program does not cost $7,000, less is left behind for the student whose program requires a higher cost.

This is what is happening already with charter schools.

That is why for-profit charter schools that serve only K-6 or K-8 students are able to PROFIT from per pupil funding they receive.  Everyone knows a comprehensive high school costs more than an elementary school.  In the same way, charter cyber schools are able to profit because online learning, without buildings, without transportation, without auditoriums, bands, and football teams – cost less per pupil than students in the comprehensive programs.


The biggest difference, and the major reason having a voucher-like program where the dollar follows the child won’t work, is special learners – especially our students who require special education services. These students will absolutely be left behind in any kind of voucher type or “scholarship” program. Seven thousand dollars will buy a special education student a mere fraction of what they need.  And, although proponents of vouchers will say that special education students get special funding and so we don’t have to worry about them – we need to point out that is simply not true. Yes, there is some special funding for special education students, but that funding does NOT cover all the extra costs – in fact, the general education school fund in most schools needs to cover about 30-40% of those extra costs.

Unless you are a charter school that serves only the milder needs of special education students.

Let’s talk about that for a minute – charter school operators like to tell us about the number, or percent, of special education students they serve. At last count about 11% of charter school students received special education services, while in our comprehensive K-12 community-governed schools that number is about 14%. But there is a very important factor that those percentages do not reveal – and that is the amount and intensity of the special education services being provided.


To see that factor we have to look at what is called the full time equivalency (the FTE) of those services – in other words does the student receive one hour a WEEK of speech therapy or learning consultation, or do they receive one hour a DAY of special education instruction – perhaps a half day, or even a full day of such services.  That is what makes up the FTE and this is where charters and community-governed schools are very, very different. In this count, charters serve an FTE of .95 while community-governed schools serve an FTE of 3.50. Imagine how different the dollars per pupil are between these two levels of service!

This is why vouchers, credit cards, scholarships, whatever you want to name the funding structure behind the Oxford Plan to unbundle education will not work, and why the Oxford Plan has the potential to dismantle the comprehensive K-12 educational programs that communities now receive. It is why the Oxford Plan refused to address special education costs.  All of which is why the Oxford Plan is a concept that should not move forward without due diligence.

We do need to reexamine how public schools are funded – especially now that we have many forms of schools operating that are not comprehensive K-12 school districts, and that do not incur the same costs as a comprehensive education incurs.

I fully support the Michigan State Board of Education and our State Superintendent in terms of their recommendation for a School Funding Adequacy Study. Analyzing what it takes to provide a quality education in different settings, at different grade levels, around the different needs of our learners is a study that has been needed for a long time. It is a study that has been recommended by the independent research firm, Citizen’s Research Council, a number of economists at the university level, as well as many in the field. It is time for Michigan to stop avoiding such a study – we need legislation that will require this study be done before we propose how to change the funding structure we now have.

Right now the vast majority of students in Michigan are succeeding in school, getting their diverse needs met, having a full menu of curricular and extra-curricular program options and receiving the free and appropriate education required by the law of this land.  We must not risk going backward on this, by jumping onto a partisan platform for “voucher-like choice.”

Please ask your legislators to support the School Funding Adequacy Study before they jump to support any changes in how our schools are funded right now. Thank you!





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


  1. Mary Masson · · Reply

    Excellent article Dr. Markovitch. Will this be published in the Oakland Press, Detroit News, Free Press and other newspapers throughout the state? This is very clearly written and helps the layman more fully understand how the “dollars” are spent and the variances of need/dollars spent with our most at risk learners. Are school districts providing this to their parent community?

  2. We very much appreciate your comment, Mary, and I will pass your post directly on to Dr. Markavitch. I like your suggestion of re-publishing the article in other venues. Please feel free to forward Dr. Markavitch’s blog post to your colleagues – and THANK YOU for your support!

  3. Dr. Rick Repicky · · Reply

    I echo Mary Masson’s remarks – couldn’t say either Ms. Masson’s comment or Dr. Markavitch’s message any better.

  4. […] brought forward pieces of the Oxford proposal to his budget – specifically section (21f) to “unbundle” school funding. This section brings us vouchers under the guise of choice – it seems to simply give parents an […]

  5. […] Unbundling Public Education Doesn’t Add Up!, Oakland Schools – Michigan, February 2013 […]

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