“We aren’t where we need to be,” John Austin said at a town hall meeting at the Midland Center for the Arts. “Michigan used to be a high-achieving state.”
Austin, a Democrat, was first elected to the state board in 2000, re-elected in 2008 and is up for re-election this year. He spoke to a group of about 35 people at the forum sponsored by the Midland County Democratic Party.
“We’ve had 15 years of cutting public education in real dollars,” Austin said, adding that funding has been cut by 15 percent over that period for K-12 education and “30 percent or more” for higher education.
Michigan’s economic struggles also have led to a drop in school-age population of about 200,000, Austin said.
A particular concern is the proliferation of new charter schools in the last few years — the number of school districts in the state has exploded from 560 to over 800. Austin said that while some charter schools offer high quality learning, many do not.
“The Legislature decoupled the new schools ... from whether they deliver quality education,” Austin said, adding that lawmakers are “held hostage” by the “charter lobby.”
“The philosophy is, ‘Let anybody open any school without any quality control,’ resulting in chaos … It hurts the funding and the learning,” he said.
Austin said it’s a case of “the tea party tail wagging the Republican Party dog … the Republican business establishment is not having the influence it should have.”
Students in the state’s largest urban areas have been particularly harmed by this phenomenon, as some public schools struggle and a “flood” of charter schools have rushed in with slick marketing, he said.
“(Parents are) susceptible to marketing that says, ‘We’ve got a better option,’” Austin said.
Charter schools in Michigan can be authorized through any intermediate school district or community college, and Austin cited Bay Mills Community College in Brimley as a “window” for charter school authorization far from the college’s location. According to its website, Bay Mills has authorized 43 charter schools throughout the state.
“They don’t care what the charter does once it’s authorized,” Austin said. “There are too many schools chasing too few students and the dollars that flow with them … We need to get some constraints on this crazy new school creation.”
Such constraints are one key to fixing Detroit Public Schools, Austin said, along with lifting the district’s debt and restoring local governance.
“The ‘we know best’ state takeover has not proven effective,” he said.
The state board chairman said these steps to “solve the learning crisis” in Detroit are supported by Mayor Mike Duggan, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, business leaders and other stakeholders in education.
DPS students “can learn to the same high standards” as students anywhere in the state, he said.
An audience member had similar complaints about “online-only” education.
“We’re experimenting with our kids and districts are being forced to implement distance learning … This is crazy,” he said.
Austin said that while he applauds efforts to use online resources in education, new research says online-only education is largely a failure.
“The kids are not mastering the content,” he said.
In response to a question regarding state assessment tests, Austin said such measurements “should be as short and straightforward and simple and accurate” as possible.
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