Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's panel calls for free preschool, community college

Posted at 2:59 PM, Mar 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-10 14:59:29-05

Michigan should make community college free for everyone and give merit-based scholarships to high school graduates who attend the state's public universities, a commission formed by Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday in a report that also recommends abolishing grade levels and instead advancing students only once they master content.

The study recommends universal access to preschool for all 4-year-olds — not just disadvantaged and lower-income ones — and state aid to help pay for school buildings in higher-poverty districts and those used by publicly funded charter schools.

Another key recommendation proposes seeking a 2018 constitutional amendment to give the governor more sway over education policy by having direct oversight of the state Education Department. The governor's K-12 powers are currently limited outside of funding decisions.

The panel says it could cost nearly $2.5 billion more annually to implement every recommendation. And that may be a conservative estimate.

But the 25-member commission, which Snyder created last March and whose members were named in May, says lawmakers and the governor must confront bleak realities in Michigan's education system.

Fourth-graders rank 41st nationally in reading, and the state is one of just three to see a decline in reading achievement since 2003. Eighth-graders rank 37th in math.

Michigan is 42nd in state aid for community colleges and universities and had the fifth-largest decline over the past five years. It has the fourth-highest tuition levels.

Per-pupil, K-12 spending is middle of the pack at 24th, but was 8th-highest as recently as 2000. When adjusted for inflation and increasing retirement costs, per-student funding for operations was 12 percent lower in 2015 than a decade earlier.

"Declining resources relative to other states is a likely cause of Michigan's recent poor performance relative to other states," the report said.

The Republican governor, who has less than two years left in office, called the report a "blueprint" that can be used long into the future. Gains already have been made in some areas identified in the report — such as expanded early childhood education — but there clearly is more work to be done in other areas, he said.

Snyder in particular praised the appeal for competency-based learning, an "out-of-the-box" model in which there is less focus on a seat time and grade levels and more on allowing students to progress as they master academic subjects regardless of the pace of learning.

"I think that's far overdue," he said at a news conference with commission members in Detroit. "Are you qualified in a subject matter? If you're qualified in that subject matter, you may have to take a little bit longer or you could go much faster."

The report recommends providing scholarships to attend a state university to high school graduates with a 3.0 GPA or higher. Michigan had broad-based scholarship programs from 2000 to 2009, but they ended due to budget cuts amid the Great Recession.

Other recommendations include:

— improving the state's teacher colleges by setting higher admission standards and requiring yearlong uniform residencies in which would-be teachers are trained by "master" teachers.

— determining how much base K-12 funding is needed to ensure schools can meet performance benchmarks.

— ensuring every student has a career/college counselor.

— providing additional funding to educate disadvantaged students.

— urging lawmakers to support a ballot measure that would ask voters to choose one of three options to better align education policy decision making that currently is dispersed: letting the governor appoint members of the state Board of Education who currently are elected; having the governor directly appoint the state superintendent and abolishing the board that now hires the state's top education official; or changing the board by removing partisan nominations and expanding its membership to include gubernatorial appointments.

The commission's chairman, Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas, said improving student outcomes must be the "North Star" for Michigan leaders.

"Please accept this challenge to act now," he said.