In it for the Money: Letters And Wish Lists

"I don't see a pressing reason that we should pay more to have less input into schools that do a worse job."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Sometimes, like this month, he’ll deviate from that schedule – because he had something super-important to tell you right now. Nelson is sort of a long-winded son-of-a-gun. If you want to read very short things by Nelson, more frequently than once a month, you can follow him on Twitter, where he’s @SquiDaveo

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

It’s the letter writing season.

I’d like you to add at least one more letter to your list: I need you to drop a line to your state reps, senators, and the governor telling them that you’re opposed to any expansion of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority during the current lame duck session.

You’ll want to tell these folks to oppose or veto House Bill 6004 and Senate Bill 1358 (which expand the Education Achievement Authority) and House Bill 5923 (allowing for the unlimited formation of new publicly-funded charter and cyber schools).

More than that, though, I want you to activate your whole network – that Facebook thing you do, that Twitter thing and even LinkedIn. Because I bet you have friends, family members and colleagues who live in Kalamazoo, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Bad Ax or wherever else in Michigan, who you can move to action by nudging them with social media. What we want to do here is activate the entire state.

Below the fold is a template you can crib from – and feel free to omit the link to this column, if you so choose; my self-promotion is, as a policy, utterly shameless.

A Sample Letter To Save Public Education


Dear __________________,

The tail end of a lame duck session is no time to radically alter our public education system. Please do everything you can to oppose any expansion of Michigan’s as-of-yet unproven Education Achievement Authority, and to limit the implicit privatization of public education in Michigan. This includes opposing House Bill 6004 and Senate Bill 1358 (which expand the Education Achievement Authority to a statewide entity) and House Bill 5923 (which allows for the unlimited formation of new charter and cyber schools, including those run as for-profit businesses). Please support Senator Rebekah Warren’s Senate Joint Resolution R, a constitutional amendment prohibiting the operation of a public school on a for-profit basis.

Handing over our public institutions – and tax dollars – to private companies with no demonstrable record of success, and doing so without strict oversight, flies in the face of reason and should offend rational, honest public servants on both sides of the aisle.

For a detailed analysis of the hazards of pitfalls inherent in the EAA, charter schools, and “cyber” schools, please take a few minutes to read this most recent piece by handsome Ann Arbor Chronicle columnist David Erik Nelson:

Thank you for your time, consideration, and good faith.



Gimme a few minutes, and I’ll explain why you almost certainly don’t want to rush into beefing up Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority.

The What?

The Education Achievement Authority, dummy! It arose from the platonic conception of itself in 2011 to take over the lowest-performing 5% of Detroit’s public schools, and began operation with this 2012-2013 school year.

Back in 2011 the EAA was hand-crafted by Roy Roberts (at that time the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools) and Eastern Michigan University, under the auspices of our old emergency manager law (aka Public Act 4). You might recall that we, the People of Michigan, repealed PA 4 via ballot referendum last month. Meanwhile, the Detroit Board of Education – an elected body – has voted to disband the EAA and part ways with EMU.

Strangely, despite the fact that it was formed under a law that we’ve invalidated, and despite being disbanded by the officials elected as caretakers of the property it would occupy, and despite having less than one year under its belt (and thus no data to demonstrate the efficacy of its methods), the EAA is somehow poised to expand statewide instead of shriveling.

Check out the EAA website, and you’ll learn that this mythical beast “will” (not may or could) “operate the lowest performing 5% of schools in Michigan” – not just poor ole Detroit – and will provide “greater autonomy to help ensure dramatic student achievement increases.” For added fun, the process would apparently be iterative – which means that each year the lowest performing 5% of the schools that are left will be added to the EAA. Are you following the math here? This is a formula that will rapidly lead to the EAA-ification of the majority of the districts in the state.

Liberated From Public Oversight

“Greater autonomy” evidently means “free from the expectation of answering to the people who pay for it or enroll kids in it.”

In their recent opposition to Proposal 2 both the Governor and the Michigan Republican Party voiced concerns that the amendment (which would constitutionally guarantee workers’ right to collective bargaining) would invalidate existing laws applying to school teachers and staff, and thus might endanger children. That’s a valid (if far-fetched) concern, and I suppose many Michiganders shared it, because Prop 2 failed.

But according to the language of the current HB 6004/SB 1358 – which are strongly supported by the GOP and the Governor – the EAA has no external oversight or auditing. The EAA is not subject to oversight by our elected state Board of Education (let alone any local body) – or even the state legislature (because funds pass directly to the EAA outside of the legislative process). And the EAA can seize publicly-owned school buildings that are built and maintained using local tax dollars – whether or not the local families who paid for these facilities will be served by the new EAA-controlled school (which has the privilege of determining what students it will serve).

The Chancellor of the EAA, John Covington, is appointed by the Governor – and thus only answerable to him. I have trouble imagining a scenario where an essentially local official (in that he presides over the local school for anyone in an EAA-controlled district) could be less accountable to the people. (That Covington has sort of a crap record as an education administrator is entirely beside the point; just Google his name if you want to see how Kansas City, Missouri, continues to smart over his stint as a school superintendent there.)

Sketchy Methods

Methodologically, the EAA is all about “child-centered learning.” You, Dear Readers, are in luck, because in my old life I spent 10 years in child-centered education (albeit in the really fringy part).

I love child-centered education – which, as the name implies, means setting curriculum and goals based on the child’s strengths, needs, and interests, rather than on the needs of school administrators, book publishers, test designers, elected officials, possible employers, the military, or private industry.

Fortunately, a great deal of our public education already engages in solid child-centered practices with proven track-records. Across the state children with identified special needs are set up with IEPs (“individualized education plans”) that are crafted by teachers, parents, and education specialists to address those students’ learning differences productively. Those plans are carried out either in the “regular” classroom – often called “mainstreaming” – or in separate “resource rooms,” which is probably more like the sequestered “special ed” rooms many readers will recall from their Golden Rule days.

“Regular” students in “regular” classrooms regularly also see individualized curriculum, where teachers break the room down into sub-groups – or even spin individual kids off on solo projects – so that everyone can work at a level that is personally challenging and enjoyable. That’s a process called “differentiation,” “accommodation,” or “scaffolding,” depending on the context.

But “child-centered learning” under the EAA doesn’t necessarily look like that. What’s being described in some cases sounds good (for example, this program at Nolan Elementary in Detroit), and is very much in line with traditional models of child-centered learning. It ain’t no Sudbury School, but it’ll do.

But the EAA is in love with digital child-centered learning. This seems to hinge on the “Buzz” software built on Agilix Lab’s BrainHoney platform. This is a commercial product from a private software company which doesn’t yet seem to have pulled together any case studies demonstrating the efficacy of their approach. My brief research using indicates that they’ve been billing themselves as a “worldwide leader in distributed learning solutions” since at least 2007; you’d think they’d have collected some data over the course of half a decade . . .

Anyway, this testimony from Brooke Harris, an English teacher at Mumford High School in Detroit, describes Buzz-assisted EAA-style “child-centered” learning in action:

Buzz is composed of “one size fits all” purchased curriculum. Instead of differentiated activities and lessons being created by their teacher – a certified professional who lives and works in the city of the students, who has taken the time to get to know each of them on a personal level – the limited activities and lessons have already been mapped out without any knowledge or regard to the student’s background, culture, needs, strengths, or interests.

That doesn’t sound super “child-centered.” In fact, if you read the entire testimony – it’s just two pages, a transcript of Harris’s testimony before the House Education Committee on Nov 19, 2012 – Buzz sounds like yet another poorly designed, ill-tested, and likely overpriced software package dumped into the lucrative “education market.”

But Buzz is just the tip of the iceberg. Harris paints a disheartening picture of what things are like in an EAA school. Not only is this computerized “child-centered learning” a total sham, but Harris is still dealing with 45-student classrooms. That’s Afghanistan-style classroom overcrowding! (Read more on class-size here.)

The legitimately child-centered IEPs of mainstreamed special-needs students in this EAA school are being ignored – because the schools have criminally overburdened the special education staff. (That’s not hyperbole; the case-loads being forced on staff violate Michigan law; see the footnote in Harris’s testimony.)

This is the EAA. Now, in a funny coincidence, I actually have a nodding familiarity with Mumford back when it was just a standard failing Detroit public school. I’m gonna level with you: It was very bad, and this is worse.

Nonetheless the EAA is the only school/district in Michigan that’s still in the running for federal Race to the Top funds – much to the chagrin of basically everyone in conventional education, who saw a half billion dollars cut from the School Aid Fund this year.

Giving Away Our Schools So We Can Buy Them Back

All of this is troubling, and it becomes more so when coupled with HB 5923 – which removes limits on new charter and “cyber schools.” This latter is the business of folks like Agilix Labs – not that they themselves seem to be interested in education, per se; their business is in building and maintaining a platform so that other folks can quickly set up their own “cyber schools” with minimal hassle and no computer know-how. But my experience is that folks like Agilix don’t sell software packages; they sell service contracts. If the school can’t keep paying the bill, they lose access. If Agilix upgrades their platform and it requires hardware the school doesn’t have, the school either has to upgrade their computers or lose their curriculum. If Agilix jacks up the price after the current contract expires and the schools can’t afford it? Sorry, Charlie!

It seems almost certain that the new EAA super-district will be seizing schools and handing over the day-to-day operation to chartered education management companies using online curricula.

Now, the old public-school Mumford was crappy – folks were always complaining about the decades-old textbooks – but at least they had textbooks and qualified teachers to use them. Miss a payment to BrainHoney, and you’re reduced to a Teach-for-America kid reading aloud from Wikipedia off his iPhone.

Now, there are wonderful community-operated charter schools in Michigan, as well as some distance-learning “cyber” programs that support classroom learning well. Again, I know that for a fact.

But charter schools in general – for-profit and community-based alike – have a shaky track record. According to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2009 at least five case studies had found charter schools underperforming when compared to their local traditional public schools: “Charter schools in all five case study states were less likely than traditional public schools to meet performance standards even after controlling for several school characteristics.” However, the Dept. of Education still concluded that “the study design does not allow us to determine whether or not traditional public schools are more effective than charter schools.” This dearth of meaningful research into whether or not charter schools actually work is itself troubling. It’s not like charter schools fell from space in 2011; we’ve been doing this for two decades. The first charter-school kindergartners now have kids of their own. How has life worked out for this first generation of charter schooled Americans? Are they sending their kids to charters?

Still, we somehow have no clear idea if charter schools work, and now we seem to be priming ourselves to flip our whole system to this model. Would you go all-in on an alternative cancer treatment if your doctor said “We don’t really have any research on whether or not this works, but I’ve just got this feeling about it, you know?” (By contrast, just 20 years into the Perry Preschool Project, we knew that we had something good going on. Today, 50 years after the project began, the value of the HighScope pre-school methodology is universally accepted. Each dollar invested in such a program yields $7 in profits, in the form of savings on social programs and criminal justice, as well as economic growth. Sadly, I don’t see any movement in the state legislature to put our entire education system in the hands of highly trained pre-school teachers – you know, people with an actual track record for success in education.)

So, maybe charters are a good way to educate kids, maybe they aren’t, but there’s one thing to be sure: In Michigan they can be a pretty damn good way to make a dime. Check it out: These laws make the per pupil grant (think “voucher”) highly portable. This is around $6,000 per kid, and represents his or her share of the tax dollars going toward education. But the thing is, that $6,000 doesn’t represent the actual cost of educating a specific student, just his or her share of the pie when its divided up equally. Obviously, it costs different amounts to educate different kids. As a rule of thumb, teens are more expensive to educate than grade schoolers, and special needs always add to the cost.

For example, a first grader like ours, who’s “good at school” (e.g., likes going, tests well, reads well, speaks English as a first language, has ample help at home from two experienced teachers, etc.) probably only costs a few grand to educate. Expense-wise, he’s basically half-a-kid. But a blind high schooler with a cognitive impairment – who needs a variety of supports and accommodations, and perhaps even a classroom aid – can easily run in excess of $18,000 per year. Where do we get the other $12,000? Duh – we use the excess from all those happy, frolicking first-graders.

Nonetheless, if my six-year-old splits for the green pastures of a cyber-charter-topia, that new school gets all $6,000 he represents on the grand spreadsheet in Lansing, even if that new program only needs $3,000 (or less!) to educate him.

Charter schools disproportionately serve elementary schoolers and ignore special needs. In fact, under these new laws charters will be able to cherry pick students for any reason except religion (age, gender, native language, musical acumen, height – you name it). That is, they can skim off the low-cost or high-talent students (and their full per-pupil grants), and leave out the expensive kids who are tricky to teach or require specialized staff.

A system like that can only work (to the degree it works at all) if you still have a well-funded public system to dump the “expensive” kids into. If we hand the whole thing to a for-profit system, they can no longer off-load the expense of the most resource-intensive students, and their business model collapses over the long term – even if they’ve been saved the expense of construction by swiping the facilities we paid for. And then what? When their profits flag and their stock price plummets and investors and creditors come knocking, what happens? Do we bail them out with more public funds? Prop them up with milages and taxes? Then we’re right back to a public system again – but now it has no local oversight at all, no workplace safeguards for staff, no quality assurance for students and families, no standards or benchmarks.

About 80% of the charter schools in Michigan are operated as for-profit endeavors by large education management companies, such as EdisonLearning (one of the largest players in the market). EdisonLearning (previously called Edison Schools) doesn’t have a great track record. All told – and this is anecdotal, based on my observations and acquaintances’ first-hand accounts of the operation of for-profit charter schools – for-profits seem all too often to do a poorer job and cost more, rather than doing a better job for less.

I don’t see a pressing reason that we should pay more to have less input into schools that do a worse job.

Do This Right Now!

If you’re steamed about this, then you want to contact the Governor, your reps, and your senator ASAP – feel free to use the template from the top of this column. Assuming you’re basically local, that means contacting these folks:

Governor Rick Snyder (everyone should write him right now!)
P.O. Box 30013
Lansing, Michigan 48909
Phone: (517) 373-3400

Representative Mark Ouimet (represents western Washtenaw)
S-986 House Office Building
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: (517) 373-0828
Toll Free: 855-627-5052 (855 MARK052)

Representative Rick Olson (represents Saline)
S-989 House Office Building
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: (517) 373-1792
Toll Free: (888) 345-2849

Representative Jeff Irwin (who needs no convincing)
S987 House Office Building
Mailing Address
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909-7514
Phone: (517) 373-2577
Fax: (517) 373-5808

Representative David Rutledge (little strip of eastern Washtenaw)
S-988 House Office Building
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: (517) 373-1771
Toll Free: (855) 347-8054

Senator Rebekah Warren (represents most Ann Arborites)
415 Farnum Bldg.
P.O. Box 30036
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: (517) 373-2406

Senator Randy Richardville (represents Pittsfieldians)
S-106 Capitol Bldg.
P.O. Box 30036
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: (517) 373-3543

For good measure, you might want to separately email our federal representatives, indicating that you’re disappointed that the unproven and, thus-far, disappointing Michigan EAA is up for Race to the Top funds. Forward them the note you sent to the Governor, et al.

Representative John Dingell (or find your rep here)
Ypsilanti Office
301 W. Michigan Ave, Suite 400
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Phone: (734) 481-1100

Senator Debbie Stabenow
243 W. Congress, Suite 550
Detroit, MI 48226
Phone: (313) 961-4330

Senator Carl Levin
Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building
477 Michigan Avenue, Suite 1860
Detroit, MI 48226-2576
Phone: (313) 226-6020

Playing The Letter Game

A few quick notes on playing the “Write Your Representatives” game:

  1. Even if you know one of these folks already agrees with you write anyway; it’s powerful for them to be able to say: “I’ve gotten X-hundred letters about this from my constituents, and they’re all saying ‘No way!’ There’s clearly no ‘mandate’ for doing something this extreme this fast.”
  2. Olsen, Ouimet, and Richardville support these bills, but are still political animals. Even if you feel hopeless in your district, write them anyway: They are your representatives, too, and when those letters pile up it can be hard to ignore. Ditto on writing Snyder. He’s a reasonable guy; point him toward the reasonable path, and remind him about how we helped him with Prop 4 last month.
  3. Get your friends and family on board, just like we did with Prop 4. Show them the letter you sent and encourage them to cut and paste and send their own. Point them here if they want details.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!



  1. December 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    Be careful! You are in danger of losing your cynical, I-could-care façade.

    OK, OK, I’ll send the emails. Thanks for making it so accessible. I don’t have kids in school but I get it.

  2. By David Erik Nelson
    December 6, 2012 at 12:38 pm | permalink

    FYI: If you have trouble with that email address for Senator Warren, try this form:

  3. By Barbara Annis
    December 6, 2012 at 4:27 pm | permalink

    Thank you for a well reasoned argument and a “cheat sheet” for contacting our representatives. I hope you don’t mind that I edited out “handsome”

  4. December 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm | permalink

    I received a paste-and-send response from the Governor almost as soon as I’d clicked send. You’ll probably get the same one. Here’s my reply:


    Thanks for taking the time to paste a reply. According to reports from *within* current EAA direct-run schools, the Buzz software is *not* being used to foster meaningful child-centered education, and conditions in at least some of these schools are as bad or worse than they were before the schools were taken over.

    Once details are sorted out, the EAA *might* run excellent schools using their current blueprint, at which time I’d be among its loudest boosters. Show me a system that works and I’ll back that system. But the EAA has only been in operation for *three months.* I can’t *imagine* that the governor–in his old life–would have ever rolled out a product after such limited testing and without sending it through any sort of rigorous evaluation or quality assurance. We all want what’s best for our kids, but I can’t *fathom* why we’re rushing into this without even a single year’s data. That’s just plain stupid.

    I Remain,
    David Erik Nelson
    child-centered educator (ten years experience)
    and columnist for the Ann Arbor Chronicle

  5. By TJ
    December 6, 2012 at 5:24 pm | permalink

    This is the same legislature that won’t move on Health Care Exchanges (which were explicitly in the ACA when it was passed in 2010) because there isn’t enough time to figure out how to do it right. What hypocrites.

  6. By Alan Benard
    December 7, 2012 at 9:53 am | permalink

    Thank you, David, for writing this. That your freelance effort is the most detailed and complete local reporting on these bills which will negatively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and millions of children highlights the uselessness and cowardice of . That blog’s collective journalistic sense and competency is shameful.

  7. By Roger Kuhlman
    December 8, 2012 at 12:05 am | permalink

    Shouldn’t this article be entitled “Save the Teacher’s Unions Education?” Everyone who follows Education issues with a modicum of attention and interest knows that the Public Educational System which is dominated by Teacher’s Unions has been failing for a long time now. The association between these two facts is no coincidence. The Teacher’s Unions put their own interests ahead of both the children they are supposed to educate and the Public they are supposed to serve. More Charter Schools and Parental Choice of where kids are educated are needed if our Public Schools are to start producing better results. Isn’t it strange that the Rich and privileged families largely educate their children in private schools where they can get a much better education than is possible in most of the public school system?

  8. By Steve Bean
    December 8, 2012 at 10:35 am | permalink

    @7: “The association between these two facts is no coincidence.”

    Supporting evidence?

    “Isn’t it strange that the Rich and privileged families largely educate their children in private schools where they can get a much better education than is possible in most of the public school system?”

    No. Again, evidence? Percentages? Studies?

  9. By Patricia Single
    December 9, 2012 at 10:24 am | permalink

    I am a member of the NEA, MEA and HEA. I have taught every grade level from Kindergarten to grade 12 and special education for students with most every type of disability. I am a master at differentiating learning for most any learner. A packaged cyber-education program, no matter the quality, can not replace me. I have taught more children to read, write, compute, think, and self-regulate, inspite of remarkable challenges, than most of the persons involved in legislating education in our State. A major reason I have grown better and better at teaching with every year and every child is the contractual requirement for continuing education, planning release time and professional development negotiated by my Unions. A significant factor in my effectiveness as a teacher is due to negotiated class size, preparatory time, support staff requirements (thank the heavens for paraeducators), and even the ability to wear pants while I do my job. (My mother’s Union negotiated for that privilege back in the late 1960′s. My Great Aunt would not have been allowed to teach if married, or if she colored her hair, or for myriad other reasons. By the time she retired from the Detroit Public Schools, when they were the shining star of American education, her Union had negotiated the right for these simple privileges.) Unions empower quality teaching and protect workers from potentially arbitrary and inhibiting impediments.

  10. By Barbara Carr
    December 12, 2012 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Thank you for writing this and for making it so easy to act. I heard from the League of Women Voters about this legislation and wanted to protest, but didn’t because it involved looking up addresses etc. (I am ashamed to admit this, but it is true.)