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Secretary DeVos should be as transparent as local superintendents in budget decisions

Editor’s note: This guest commentary is submitted by Michael Paskewicz, former superintendent of Northview Public Schools. School News Network welcomes reader responses and alternative commentary.

“You Need to Remember the Important Stuff” – Travis, a former Northview kindergartner and Life Coach, 2014

Throughout my 40-year career in public education there have been many times where funding or program value issues required budget realignments, reductions, or in rare instances, adding resources. We learned that building community and staff trust was based upon integrity as well as being ethical enough to disclose our decision-making process. Being transparent required us to disclose who was involved in the process, how we engaged stakeholders, and how we reached our decisions. We disclosed the implications of our decisions on the academic achievement and social development of our students.

The outcome was a well thought out set of decisions that not only met the realignment or reduction requirements but established trust with staff, families, and the community at large. Not all parties agreed with the final decisions but the process allowed all to see “what” was considered and “why.”

I would like to see U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos explain her budget decisions in a transparent and inclusive manner similar to the way I used as a local superintendent of schools. As superintendent of Northview Public Schools, I took a kindergartener’s wise advice to heart. I would like Secretary DeVos to do the same.

Recently she submitted her 2020 budget recommendations on how the DOE will assist in the education of our youth. Her “Major Initiatives for Fiscal Year 2020” are listed below:

  1. Increase access to school choice
  2. Support high-need students through essential formula grant programs
  3. Protect students by promoting safe and secure schools
  4. Elevate the teaching profession through innovation
  5. Promote workforce development for the 21st century
  6. Streamline and improve post secondary aid programs

These are admirable initiatives and most could be found in state and local school district budgets. As one looks deeper into the details of the DOE budget, allocations for the “important stuff” are disclosed.

Secretary DeVos is following a presidential guideline to reduce the DOE budget by $7.1 billion or roughly 10%. Almost all budget categories are held constant from the current budget or are reduced. There were 29 programs proposed for elimination, although funding for Special Olympics was restored by President Trump after a public outcry. One notable program slated to be increased is the School Choice/Charter School budget. That budget is currently $440 million; a $60 million increase is recommended.

By contrast, the Title I budget of $15.9 billion is flat. This budget is critical in the support of high-need students. However, the recommendation is to raise the Direct Student Services Set-aside in Title I from 3% to 5% ($795 million) to encourage states to leverage more Title I funds to support public school choice. This set-aside is intended to hire outside sources to assist students make academic gains. The increased set-aside adds additional funds to “increase access to school choice.”

The second major initiative, “Support high need students through essential formula grants,” seems to be in conflict with other parts of the budget, as at least two of the programs proposed for elimination assist in addressing issues faced by “high-need students”:

  • 21st Century Learning Centers – supports before/after school and summer programs for students in high-need communities: $1.2 million.
  • Promise neighborhoods – supports local partnerships that meet the cradle-to-career educational, health, and social service needs of children and families in high-poverty communities: $78.3 million.

The rationale for eliminating seven of the 29 programs is that “they can be funded by the Title I” and other formula grants; their total cost is $1.8 billion.

Private Scholarships Impact Public Schools

The recommendation to establish Education Freedom Scholarships provides for a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-based scholarship programs. Privately funded scholarships are intended to improve the educational experiences of students across the country, without taking a single dollar away from public schools. Individual and business taxpayers nationwide are allowed to contribute to student scholarships. Such contributions are eligible to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

The scholarships may be used for K-12 private or parochial school tuition and school choice expenses. The impact on public schools is the reduction of per-pupil allocation for each student who leaves a school system for a private one. This is a direct support of the major initiative to “Increase access to school choice.”

If the Education Freedom Scholarships recommendation is approved, I suggest Secretary DeVos add tax breaks for people who volunteer time in local organizations or schools that benefit the community at large (I.e. Kids’ Food Basket, Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, mentoring programs in schools, Gilda’s House, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, etc.). Our communities are filled with people who do not have the financial means to donate large amounts of money but do donate larger amounts of time and talents. “Remember the important stuff.”

There are many pros and cons that can be argued regarding the value of School Choice/Charter Schools, vouchers, and privately funded scholarships. All directly impact public schools.  Over 80% of Michigan charter schools are for-profit enterprises. Charter schools draw their enrollment from multiple school districts and there is a financial implication for those districts.  

As an example: A K-6 charter school may enroll 32 fourth-graders, four students from each of eight different school districts. The charter school receives per-pupil state funding allocation for 32 students and hires a full-time teacher.  If each of the eight other districts had 32 fourth-grade students but now has only 28, each loses the per-pupil allocation for four students. But each district still needs to employ the same number of teachers, as there are still 28 students needing a fourth-grade teacher.

This is a defunding of public education. It is most troubling that a systematic defunding of public education continues at the national, state, and sometimes local levels without considering the implications of the budget recommendations — both positive and negative.

Show Us the Implications

Rather than continue a list of possible cuts/realignments/increases for her consideration, I am asking Secretary DeVos to disclose her decision-making process complete with rationale for the decisions. I suggest that she contact organizational consultant Dr. Joel Barker (joel@joelbarker.com) and ask him to facilitate an “Implications Wheel” process to disclose “first, second, and third level” implications of her budget recommendations. Had the DOE used a decision-making process like this, the entire commentary about eliminating funding for Special Olympics would have been avoided.

The implications of each budget recommendation are vast and do impact public education in each of our classrooms.  Ninety percent of American students attend a public school. Some of the implications assist in the education of our youth, while other implications systematically defund public education.

Trust in our elected and appointed officials is at an all-time low. Our local communities expect our public schools to be transparent in their decision-making. If Secretary DeVos were to disclose her decision-making process that resulted in her recommended eliminations/additions – more fully than in her recent Congressional testimony — it would demonstrate her desire to be transparent. Is she modeling her recommendations based upon best educational practice, or on guidelines of the American Legislative Exchange Council?

We may or may not agree with the recommendations, but at the very least we need to know how decisions were made. Transparency builds trust, whether it is in the fifth-grade classroom or in the U.S. Department of Education.

Congress has the final budget decision. I suggest they “Remember the Important Stuff.” Our public schools work!

Michael F. Paskewicz, Ed.D., served as superintendent of Northview Public Schools from 2009 to 2015. Prior to that he was superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools near Denver, Colorado, Lake Zurich Community Unit School #95 in suburban Chicago, and Ogden City Schools in Utah. Before that he served 21 years in Grand Rapids Public Schools, including as teacher, principal of Fountain Elementary School and executive assistant to the superintendent.

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