Michigan Plan to Reform Schools Stirs Local Debate, National Interest

MICHIGAN once again is being thrown into the center of the national debate over the future of public education.

Calling the public-school system an ``educational gulag'' and ``a monopoly of mediocrity,'' Gov. John Engler (R) of Michigan this week unveiled a plan to radically restructure the state's schools.

At the center of his program, unveiled before a joint session of the state Legislature, are two proposals that would allow parents to choose among the schools within their district, and foster the creation of ``charter schools'' possibly run by private organizations and funded with state tax dollars.

The controversial plan comes less than two months after the state became the first in the nation to abolish the use of local property taxes to fund public education.

The plan proposes a variety of new taxes to replace property levies, which accounted for two-thirds of the state's $9 billion education budget.

In essence, Republicans, who control the state Senate and hold a slight ideological edge in the House of Representatives, have seized this opportunity to reform public education in a more conservative image.

``What John Engler is doing in Michigan undoubtedly makes him a pivotal player in the national education reform debate,'' says William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration. ``He is walking a tightrope, to be sure, but has shown what an activist governor can do.''

The bill to abolish local property taxes was sponsored by state Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The levies were unpopular because Michigan's property taxes were among the nation's highest. But Ms. Stabenow, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Mr. Engler in 1994, was denounced by teachers' unions and Democratic loyalists, who charged that her bill was only political posturing.

Stabenow maintains that the old system perpetuated too many funding inequities between rich and poor districts. With local property values as the funding base, Michigan's 559 school districts spent from $3,500 to nearly $10,000 per pupil on education.

`WE did something bold,'' Stabenow says. ``The idea of me doing something like this as a bluff is absolutely ridiculous.''

Stabenow's bill made educational reform topic No. 1 in Michigan. It put the governor ``squarely in charge of the education agenda,'' says Larry Reed, president of the conservative Mackinac Center in Midland, Mich.

Engler said Oct 5. his plan would guarantee a ``foundation grant'' of $4,500 that would follow each student to the public school of his choice. Any money that is left over would go into a ``Student Bank Account'' that parents could put toward summer school or college.

The ``foundation grant'' could not be applied to private schools, because Michigan's constitution specifically prohibits any state money from being used in private or religious schooling.

To increase choice opportunities, Engler also has proposed the creation of about 100 alternative schools, chartered by the state but operated by teachers, parents, businesses, or other private groups interested in educating the state's children.

Business and religious leaders applaud the plan, but teachers' unions, led by the powerful Michigan Education Association, oppose many of the reforms. MEA president Julius Maddox calls them ``a backdoor way for religious and private schools to get public funds.''

State Democrats have already begun pummeling the plan - especially, the increases in sales, cigarette, and business taxes the governor has proposed to make up for the lost property tax revenues. The sales tax is particularly controversial because it would require a change in the state constitution.

``This is extortion, because Engler will now tell people `If you don't vote to increase your sales tax, you won't have any schools in August 1994,' '' says House Democratic leader Curtis Hertel.

Engler has given the Legislature a Dec. 31 deadline to complete action on the plan.

Whatever action it takes is likely to have a strong impact on the education reform debate nationwide.

``When history is written, this will be regarded as the signal event,'' says Dr. Bennett.

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