Plan to Bridge the Chasm Between Rich, Poor Schools Spurs Debate in Michigan

ONLY a few blocks separate two red-brick public grade schools near the Detroit River, but to schoolchildren, the neo-Gothic buildings are worlds apart. The schools are on opposite sides of Alter Road, a border that separates Grosse Pointe Park from southeast Detroit and divides white and black, rich and poor, as starkly as any racial frontier in South Africa.

Michigan lawmakers hope to lift strapped schools to within a few rungs of well-to-do schools by radically changing the way the state finances and administers education. The task is a big one, judging from how a child views the two elementary schools on either side of the Detroit city limits.

A child at Trombly School in Grosse Pointe Park walks across waxed floors that mirror sunlight against walls trimmed in oak and overlaid with gray marble or stenciled tiles. A child at the Guyton School in Detroit walks on dull, brown floors between walls covered with battered gray lockers and flaking paint.

Trombly students explore a colorful, airy library newly carpeted and furnished in a recent $25,000 renovation. At Guyton, there is no library; it was turned into a classroom because the school is filled 40 percent beyond capacity.

Trombly students spill out of their building onto a grassy playground and romp on three jungle gyms, a soccer field, or a baseball diamond. Guyton students mill about a crumpled backstop on a dirt lot pocked by brown grass and patches of bleached blacktop.

At Trombly, there are 25 students for every teacher; at Guyton the ratio is 34 to 1. Trombly is 97 percent white; Guyton is 95 percent black. Trombly annually spends $8,001 on a student; Guyton, $4,615. In short, Trombly students can easily vault ahead; at Guyton, they do well just to scrape by.

To address the disparity, Gov. John Engler (R) proposes to set an annual baseline spending level of $4,500 per student in public schools. Critics charge the reforms would create new elite schools and fail to ensure many disadvantaged students a competitive education. But Governor Engler's radical reforms have enthralled educators nationwide who are eager to arrest the decline of public schools.

Under Engler's plan, Michigan would redistribute education funding more fairly by requiring that school revenues come from state rather than local taxes. Legislators last July outlawed the levying of local school taxes based on wildly disparate property values.

The Republican governor would also encourage public or nonprofit organizations to open state-chartered schools for the school year beginning in September 1994.

Although equality is the aim of the conservative governor's reform, competition is its engine.

Each school would file a regular ``report card'' detailing the test scores of its students and other measures of performance. Michigan's 1.6 million students could choose their public school within their district, or within nearby districts. When switching schools they would take their state dollars with them, penalizing laggard schools and rewarding sterling ones.

By posing such a Darwinian challenge, the Engler plan is a two-edged sword for students at the needy school named Guyton. The plan would benefit students and their parents who cherish education. These students could move to a school that they deem superior, even to Trombly if Grosse Pointe Park opens its doors to Detroit children.

At the same time, however, the Engler plan might hinder the progress of children whose parents are unable to take their child to a distant school. ``I can see where some schools would probably become dumping grounds for parents who didn't care or who couldn't get their children to other schools,'' says Joann Oliveras, activities coordinator at Guyton.

Also, opponents of the Engler plan say, many slow students at Guyton would miss the inspiration from bright, motivated classmates who would move elsewhere. ``All the slow children would remain and they would have no strong children to pull from or to emulate,'' Louise Smith said outside the Guyton classroom where she has taught second grade for 22 years.

The $4,500 ``foundation grant'' that Engler proposes would exceed what half of Michigan public schools spend on students, says Bobbie McKennon, special assistant to state Treasurer Doug Roberts, who is heading the education-reform team. That amount would be a boon for rural school districts that spend less than the state average. The Gobles School District in Van Buren County, for instance, annually spends just $2,509 per pupil.

But the $4,500 would cover little more than books, chalk, and salaries in a city school like Guyton, which already spends 3 percent more than the state-sanctioned level. Vast differences in the cost of living across the state mean that a flat figure of $4,500 would not necessarily ensure equality, says Robert Klein, an economist at Public Sector Consultants, a liberal think tank in Lansing, Mich.

Other basic miscalculations could arise because lawmakers are retooling Michigan schools at a frantic pace. When the Legislature suddenly voted last July to abolish local property taxes as a source of school funding, it gave itself less than a year to devise a new way to fund public education for the school year beginning in September 1994. It also denied itself $6.3 billion in school revenue that it must scrape together through state taxes.

Both critics and champions of the plan agree that by rushing through the reforms, legislators risk enacting a flawed system. Lawmakers ``should have had an alternative plan in place; this all seems to be very slapdash,'' says Jean Rusing, the principal at Trombly.

Ms. Smith, the teacher and union organizer at nearby Guyton, is more blunt: ``I don't see the [Engler] plan working at all. It's very half-baked. They haven't thought it through.''

Critics such as Smith worry that, if the Engler plan is implemented and fails, Michigan schoolchildren could be far worse off than they are today. But proponents argue that a radical reform is needed to break through years of legislative gridlock and steady decline in public education.

``We've been scratching at the fringes of quality reform for years and nothing has happened. Now the steak is on the plate,'' says Ms. McKennon in the state treasurer's office.

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