It is the "Educating" v. "Enrollment" District Distinction, Stupid!

Critics of Mr. McLellan's school reforms make a mistake if they keep talking about his reforms as a "voucher" program. It isn't; it doesn't have to be for him to get what he wants.

I was born in 1965 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Almost every single person who has lived and died in Michigan since that time has understood the term School District to mean the same thing. The term and concept is so thoroughly integrated in to our way of life that we rarely think to define it or even talk about its existence.

For real estate agents, for example, the school district question does not take a long time to answer. Location, location, location. The concept of the school District assumes geographical boundaries. Without geographical boundaries, then, you may be using the term “District” but you are no longer talking about what all of us understand as District.

Indeed, the 1963 state constitution seems simply to assume the existence and common understanding of the District, a term that apparently required no definition.

Rather paradoxically, one of the few who thinks differently about the District and its definition is the one person Governor Snyder has entrusted to remake what used to be called public education in Michigan.  Richard McLellan, architect of HB 6004, HB 5923, and the Oxford Foundation’s rewrite of the 1979 School Aid Act, is telling you that everything you have thought about a “District” is wrong.

For McLellan – and this is the critical thing to understand about all his current legislative efforts – our common and historical understanding of the “District” means nothing. There is no basis for our common understanding of District as McLellan sees it – other than, of course, historical reality and lived experience.

But historical reality and lived experience is rather beside the point for ideologues.

We are accustomed to say that the “devil is in the details'; for constitutional lawyers like McLellan, however, the devil can be pretty much in your face.

Constitutional lawyers are not particularly interested in the day to day, year to year, business of living that occupies, say, a School District's financial administrator, but, rather in setting the long term rules and concepts, for how we will live. They can wait to get what they want. If you look for next year’s funding allocations in McLellan’s Draft legislation (section 20) you will be, if a member of a top District, relatively pleased.Nothing much appears to change. As most school Districts have learned to live year to year in utter dread of what the state might do next year to “help the kids” this will cause some immediate relief.

If you look four or five years down the road, however, when McLellan (to his credit) honestly tells you everything will come fully in to place, everything changes.

Because we only have our common understanding of District to guide us, McLellan has taken it upon himself to redefine the concept entirely so that -- while the term stays in the Constitution -- the concept becomes unrecognizable to us. McLellan simply changes things entirely by breaking our understanding of District in two: “Enrollment District” v. “Educating District.”

Why have a big constitutional battle when a little redefining of terms will do the trick?

What is left of our longstanding understanding of District can be found in McLellan’s “Enrollment District.” The Enrollment District refers to the geographically bounded District where a student’s parents reside. This “District” will have many administrative charges: verifying residency, verifying eligibility for services, maintaining records, providing counseling services, providing necessary data to the state, granting diplomas, etc., etc. Lots of expense and lots of administrative energy required here.

The “Educating District” means, well, pretty much any “educating” provider (as described in HB 5923) that will be eligible to receive funds currently allocated to the “Enrollment District.” Keep in mind there is only one pot of state money and no more money is coming in. The state will determine who gets to be an "educating" district. Should we give some of this money to community colleges and universities or "math centers" (read: ACADEMIES!) McLellan ponders in a footnote, as if he and the Governor have not already decided? As if getting Bill and Tony's Math Academy up and running hasn't been the goal all along?

 A “District,” then, in this formulation, points almost entirely to a charter designated by a business, cultural group, university, and so on. It has virtually nothing left to do with District as “District” has been traditionally understood in the state -- unless and until those traditional Districts start to act like the educational profiteers McLellan favors.

Watch the word "smithing" or magic carefully here because now you see it now you don’t: the “Districts” currently providing top rated public education, including BHSD, Birmingham, and Troy, etc., are not considered to be “Educating” Districts -- unless or until they start receiving students from other “Enrollment” Districts.

You still get to "decide," then, whether you will remain a “school of choice” – that is true. But absolutely every incentive and disincentive the state can now create will make that decision less and less meaningful. Nobody – not even top performers -- can afford to be only an “Enrollment” District under this scheme where all the money eventually flows to the "Educating Districts" (get it? The Districts that co-operate with McLellan are educating -- those that aren't cooperating aren not educating -- not terribly subtle sleight of hand here but effective).

Mr. McLellan thus slowly and gradually defines the Districts most moved in to out of existence.

The new “Educating” Districts? Most of which are still a figment of Mr. McLellan and Governor Snyder’s imagination? They are living large.

Does this mean we will have a voucher system as so many suggest?

Doing things this way Mr. McLellan don’t need no stinkin vouchers.

If he gets to redefine what District means every other argument follows his first move. 

Here Mr. McLellan has an implicit point in simply ignoring those who disagree with him. His critics, like the MEA, can be catastrophically stupid, fighting the war of 2000 rather than 2012. It is the Educating v. Enrollment District Distinction, stupid.

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-Elizabeth- November 27, 2012 at 03:30 AM
They are not likely to "get it right" in less than a year.
Mac November 27, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Mr. Reno, maybe you are thinking of people who were born and raised in a Michigan town and can't get out? I'm not sure who those people are; my peers chose to purchase homes in a particular school district, and in fact it was the absolute top criterion for their choice of home. If Michigan wants to nurture business and growth, it needs to support the top tier achool districts that allow educated people to move their families into the state. Placing bets on a profit making, unproven charter system is not the way to instill confidence in the educational system. It would make our state look like a joke.
Mike Reno November 27, 2012 at 04:45 AM
I know, Mac. We always circle back to your notion that your peeps are 100% satisfied with the perfectly delivered, comprehensive education they get from the district. If they don't like it, they can pay for their own private school, choose another school of choice public school, or move away.
Mac November 27, 2012 at 04:53 AM
No, not 100% satisfied. But people choose when they move here. Just about everyplace is a cooler place to live than Bloomfild Hills. Just about everyplace is cheaper. We live here for the schools. We are not trapped; we are free agents. We made a choice. Please do not tell us we do not, or did not have choice.
Mike Reno November 27, 2012 at 10:54 AM
Of course you had the choice to move here. That was never in question. But for that hypothetical anomaly... the presumably misguided parent who feels their child is not getting the finest education that taxpayer money can buy... I want to be clear on your views regarding their options.... You feel that they have choices. They can pickup and move. Or they can fund a private education. Or they can school of choice to another community where space is available. I am not trying to put words in your mouth... I want to understand. You feel those choices are adequate?


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