Courtesy of The Detroit News
EAST LANSING — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder kicked off an education summit today by saying the system for preparing students for the workplace — both at the state level and nationally — is broken.
But Snyder made no reference in his opening remarks at the Governor’s Education Summit to a growing controversy over an education reform group headed by a top Snyder official.
“The world has changed,” Snyder told business people and educators at the Kellogg Center in East Lansing.
“The world is much more demanding in terms of specifying what you need to get a position,” he said.
“We’ve built a system that doesn’t work anymore in terms of helping people be successful.”
It’s the 18th summit since former Republican Gov. John Engler launched the annual event.
The goal this year is to build on an oft-stated Snyder goal of improving links between business and educators to help assure a better match between the skills possessed by graduates and those in demand in the marketplace.
Snyder said today there are 60,000 vacant high-quality jobs on a state web site and filling them would lower the state-s unemployment rate — still above 8% — by 1.5 percentage points.
But Snyder opened the summit amid a controversy over a work group headed by a top state official that’s been meeting secretly and discussing development of a low-cost school plan that critics say smacks of a school voucher plan.
School vouchers — issued by the government and redeemable at private schools — are unconstitutional in Michigan, where they have been rejected by voters.
A group headed by Snyder’s Chief Information Officer David Behen has been meeting using the moniker “skunk works” and communicating using private e-mail accounts, The Detroit News reported Friday after obtaining meeting minutes and other records.
A goal of the advisory group is to create a “value school” through enhanced use of classroom technology that would result in a cost of about $5,000 per student, or about $2,000 less per pupil than the current base rate, the newspaper reported.
Students would pay the costs of their schooling with a Michigan Education Card similar to the debit cards the state issues to pay welfare benefits. Surplus money on the card for online courses, music lessons, sports team fees or other expenses.
Talks are under way with Bay Mills Community College about opening a technology-centered school by August of 2014, the report said.
The name “skunk works” originated with a secret project to develop new war planes during World War II.
News of the work group drew strong criticism from teacher unions, school administrators and Democratic lawmakers.
Snyder later told reporters he never asked the group to launch the project and is not aware of the details of what they are working on but does not want to discourage anyone from coming to him with ideas.
“Their choice of names wasn’t a good choice,” Snyder said.
Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, said the plan “would rob our kids of the resources they need.” He said the group “deliberately shut out input from educators in favor of information technology companies who stand to make money off this scheme.
William Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said the plan “is focused on lowering education’s price tag rather than on building a quality system for all students,” and is “just another experimental plan to provide education on the cheap.”
Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, said the plan’s purpose is “to repackage school vouchers so that millions of dollars could be funneled directly into the pockets of private interests.”
Snyder said he doesn’t view the issue as a controversy. “Usually whaqt happens when people come up with ideas is they don’t go very far, but you never know, and it’s part of the innovation process,” he said.
“From what I’ve heard from second-hand accounts, if they have something they finally feel was really exciting, they might want to talk to me about it.”
Snyder said it’s appropriate the group’s members are using private e-mail accounts because “it’s not an official function of the government.”
Among the group’s members is Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, who was earlier tasked by Snyder with rewriting the state law spelling out how schools are funded. Submission of McLellan’s report was delayed after a draft report was also harshly criticized as resembling a school voucher plan.
Snyder has called for schooling that is “any time, any place, any way and at any pace.” He has said he favors a system under which students are not restricted by school district boundaries or traditional schedules as to the hours of the day or months of the year when learning takes place.