By Janet Ralph
As someone who cares very much about public schools I am very concerned about some of the legislation that is being discussed in Lansing during this lame duck and holiday season. I am especially concerned when I learn that many parents and other citizens are unaware of proposals that have the potential to radically change education as we know it in Michigan.
I believe that the public is entitled to a full explanation before legislation is rushed through. It is urgent that you contact your representatives in Lansing, including, the Governor’s office, and ask for the details about any pending legislation. Also ask for rationale for the proposals and that this information be released to the press so that they can inform the public.
Things are changing daily. Space does not permit me to offer complete information and I will not risk giving inaccurate information. I am not opposed to a robust conversation about improving the quality of schools. I do object to important decisions being made in haste without full disclosure to the public, and possibly without thoughtful consideration by the legislators who vote on them. If they are good ideas, they deserve to be thoroughly vetted by the citizens whom they will affect.
We must, of course, consider changes in the way we deliver education as well as the education we will deliver. Technology must be factored in. It creates many opportunities to provide a rich curriculum. But technology like school choice, a longer school day, year round schools and other ideas, is one opportunity, not a panacea.
Some proposals are a rush to expand reform efforts that are untested and unproven. Others focus on school choice and creation of alternative online schools run by the private sector, potentially out-of -state businesses. Proposals by the Oxford Foundation, a Pennsylvania based group, are part of a 300 page bill and are too numerous and complex to discuss here, but they strongly resemble a voucher plan similar to the idea that was rejected by Michigan voters several years ago. Many, as proposed, would disadvantage poor children who do not have the ability to move to find better schools and would probably see funding to their local schools reduced. Some proposals are based on data that is flawed or has been manipulated.
My passion for public schools came from my father who grew up when there was no mandatory attendance law. He had to struggle to get a high school diploma because his father needed him at home to help on the farm. Our dad never let my brother and me forget how fortunate we were to be able to go to school.
I have taken great pride over the years watching the public schools expand. Efforts to assure that our schools were for all children led to desegregation and required programs for special needs students. The public schools now serve a wide range of students. This diversity has led to many opportunities. This has also necessarily increased the cost of our system as well as changed the way we view success. Not all of these children will achieve at the highest levels. Our goal needs to be to take them to the highest level they are capable of achieving.
Schools have expanded in other ways as well. Expectations have grown far beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. In the 21st century alone, such things as No Child Left Behind, bully prevention, obesity monitoring, health and wellness programs and use of technology have been added. None of these is bad, but they have added to the burden of staff members who too often have been scapegoated by critics for perceived inadequacies in the education system.
Finally, we must all be realistic about cost. We need to be sure all schools are quality schools. It is important that any proposals take this into account. I quote from A Nation at Risk, a report commissioned by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1981:
“We also call upon citizens to provide the financial support necessary to accomplish these purposes. Excellence costs, But in the long run, mediocrity costs far more.”
Janet Ralph is the president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.
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