Commentary: How we are reinventing state’s outmoded education system

By State Sen. Phil Pavlov

From The Detroit News

As Michigan's children head back to school, their chances for success have been greatly improved. That's because for the past 18 months, parents, educators, and lawmakers have worked hard to reinvent our public education system to meet the needs of today's students and tomorrow's challenges. They've rejected the special interests and tired, old disputes that for decades overshadowed students' opportunities for success, and they have chosen a positive new path.

As in many other states, the focus has shifted to how, when, and where education can be delivered to work best for individual children. The Legislature has partnered with Governor Snyder to enact bold policies that give our schools, parents, and teachers better tools to educate students in today's rapidly changing world, and it is exciting to see communities across our state embracing new ideas and models that put students' needs first.

It is no coincidence that families are finding better educational offerings since artificial and unnecessary barriers have been removed. School districts can now provide more online classes, giving students more options and allowing them to advance at their own pace. More high school students are eligible for dual enrollment in post-secondary coursework, lowering the cost of college for them and their families. Local districts and universities are exploring innovative charter school solutions in previously underserved regions and disciplines. Students and parents understand the value of flexible, personalized instruction designed for optimal learning, and these new choices are empowering them to take control of their education.

Schools are also placing a new emphasis on the quality of classroom teachers, arguably the single most important factor in student achievement[i]. Performance-based evaluations, merit pay, and reformed tenure laws have elevated the teaching profession to drive highly qualified people into a competitive field. That's good for students and teachers alike. Recently in my own community, the St. Clair County RESA bargained a merit pay contract with its local teacher's union. Michelle Israel, a union negotiator, said of the contract, "I'm looking forward to it, and most of the members are excited about it because there's good opportunity for movement. It's based on how effective you are in the classroom rather than your level of education[ii]." This partnership sets an excellent example for others in Michigan and around the country.

What's clear in all of this is that simply spending money is not the answer. According to statewide school report cards available on the Michigan Department of Education website[iii], some of the state's highest-funded school districts have multiple schools on the 2012 achievement gap list, despite receiving over $9,000, $10,000 or even $11,000 per pupil. Meanwhile, Calumet High School in Copper Country ISD, Clinton High School in Lenawee ISD, and Holly Academy in Oakland ISD receive just $6,846 per pupil, yet were named MDE "Reward Schools" for getting high achievement out of their students. National studies, too, dispel the notion that more money means higher achievement[iv]. Recently, Governor Snyder began a re-write of the state School Aid Act, which distributes money to Michigan's public schools[v]. This project gives us a valuable opportunity to reinforce the reforms we've implemented, and to take a fresh look at how – not how much of – your hard-earned tax dollars are spent by our schools.

Reform is never easy, and it is never finished. There are some who continually resist these efforts in order to protect their status quo arrangements. In November, they will seek to reverse this positive momentum at the ballot box. We cannot allow that to happen. Our schools do not exist to benefit adults; they exist to educate our children and prepare them for success in life.

There is more to do, and we will keep working. With a continued focus on positive solutions, we will give our children a great education so they can join us in building a better Michigan.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, is chair of the Senate Education Committee and represents Michigan's 25th District in Lansing.

[i] Experts agree the single most critical component of a child's educational experience is the quality of the teacher in his or her classroom. The impact of the classroom teacher is so profound that, according to research out of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, students who have just one bad teacher have lower test scores two years later than do comparable students with good teachers. There is strong evidence to suggest that effective teachers can far outweigh other factors such as class size, spending levels, teacher salaries, and various student demographics including race, native language, socio-economic status, and educational background.

Sanders, William L. and Rivers, June C. Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future student Academic Achievement. University of Tennessee-Knoxville. November, 1996. Available:

Darling-Hammond, Linda. Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence. University of Washington Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. December, 1999. Available:

[ii] LeDuc, Margaret. "RESA Board Approves Merit-Based Pay for 65 Teachers." The Voice. June 22, 2012.

[iii] Michigan Department of Education 2012 Statewide School Report Cards. Available:,4615,7-140–283695–,00.html

[iv] Nationally, according to 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, annual education spending per child more than doubled over the previous 35 years – even when adjusted for inflation – yet average reading scores in public schools stayed flat or declined.

The Heritage Foundation. It Ain't Over `til It's Over: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Recovery. February 11, 2009. Available:

From 1985 to 1997, a federal judge ordered the state of Missouri and the Kansas City School District to spend nearly #2 billion in state and local taxpayer money in an effort to improve student test scores. According to a 1998 CATO Institute policy analysis, "Kansas City spent more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country." The twelve-year experiment failed miserably: test scores did not rise.

Ciotti, Paul. Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment. March 16, 1998. Available:

In New Jersey, a "30-year legal battle over school funding, in the case Abbott v. Burke, has led to the nation's highest-spending urban districts. In 2007-2008, for example, the 31 city districts covered by the state Supreme Court's order to equalize funding enrolled 20 percent of New Jersey students, received 55 percent of all state aid, and outspent the wealthiest districts by about $3,000 per student." Sadly, according to a case study out of George Mason University, "evidence indicates that Abbott money has had little effect on improving student performance."

Macinnes, Gordon. "Lessons from New Jersey." The American Prospect. June 13, 2010. Available:

Norcross, Eileen and Sautet, Frederic. "Case Study: Has Abbott Worked?" Institutions Matter: Can New Jersey Reverse Course? Mercatus Center, George Mason University. July, 2009. Available:

[v] Editorial: "School Aid Rewrite on Right Track." The Detroit News. August 21, 2012.