How a Bad Bill Becomes a Bad Law: A Convoluted Process of Good Intentions and Terrible Results

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Kate is the projected valedictorian, and will graduate as #1 in her class, with a 4.0 GPA. Before this year, she took one online dual enrollment course, SOC 120 through Central Michigan University’s virtual campus. She earned an A in that class. This semester, she is taking 2 online classes: dual enrollment SPAN 121 from Lansing Community College and AP World History from Michigan Virtual University. She is on target to finish both of her online classes this semester, and she currently has an A in both classes. However, she is planning to drop the history course at the end of the semester because she’s just not feeling it and has decided not to take the AP exam.

Andy doesn’t know his GPA or his class rank, but he knows he is “in the bottom 10%.” When he was a high school sophomore, all of his courses were online through E2020 (now Edgenuity) because he was expelled. He took English, physics, geometry, biology, and health online that year and passed all but 1. Last year, he re-enrolled in school as a junior and didn’t take any online classes; this year as a senior, he is taking sociology through E2020 (or at least he’s “pretty sure that it’s through E2020 because he uses the same login that he did as a sophomore”). When I asked how he was doing in his online class this year, he smiled ruefully and said, “Well, if I was doing it… They give me an hour a day to work on it, but I just don’t. I don’t know, I just don’t work on it like I should.” He says that he is supposed to be about  halfway through the class at this point but thinks he’s about only one-quarter of the way through. He needs the credit to graduate, though, so he says, “I’m gonna have to do it. I have two jobs and go to school but I’m gonna have to do it.” And when I asked, “How?” he got quiet and said, “I don’t know.”  

Kate and Andy’s names have been changed, but they are real students and these are their real experiences. These conversation excerpts are taken from an unpublished piece I wrote in 2016.

***

Both Kate and Andy are able to take online classes while in high school because of Section 388.1621f (21f) of the School Aid Act of 1979. That Michigan law specifies that students in grades 6-12 may take up to 2 online courses of their choice per semester. The brick-and-mortar school that the student attends must pay the vendors for these online courses and is required to provide in-district highly qualified mentors to oversee and support the students. There is little leeway for districts to deny students’ enrollment in online courses. As long as the courses are consistent with the students’ graduation requirements, a district cannot legally deny them, even if the district already offers those courses in-house, and even if the district knows that a virtual learning environment won’t be in the best interest of the student.  

The state legislature added that section of the School Aid Act defining and controlling virtual courses for 6-12 students in 2013, as part of an appropriations bill introduced by then-Representative Bill Rogers (R)  as H.B. 4228. It was also introduced by then-Representative Joe Haveman (R) as H.B. 4229. Both bills originally did not contain Section 388.1621f, but both Rogers and Haveman introduced substitution language H1 (containing 21f) that won approval by the House and the Senate and was signed by Governor Rick Snyder. 

Not only is this law a burden to districts, but it inevitably puts at-risk students, like Andy, even more at-risk. The pass rate for K-12 students in online classes in Michigan is currently 55%, as reported in Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, published annually by Michigan Virtual Research Institute. Although the addition of online classes has opened doors for students to take courses not offered by their brick-and-mortar schools such as Kate’s AP World History course (but plans to drop at the end of the semester), many adolescents do not have the maturity, concentration, and self-advocacy skills necessary to thrive in autonomous online learning environments. In addition, many students need ongoing personal interactions and supports from teachers to maintain engagement and dedication in school and to ultimately succeed in coursework. The online learning environment, no matter how skillfully crafted, cannot offer the tangible human interactions that so many of our students need.

Rogers, now the township supervisor in Genoa Township, Michigan, doesn’t remember exactly how or why both bills were introduced and couldn’t coherently explain where the H1 language came from. “I really don’t recall or can explain some of those nuances,” he said in an interview at his office. (Interview transcripts have been edited for clarity, removing “ums” and unrelated tangential content.)  “It was signed by the governor too. So I don’t recall what, if anything, was the substantial differences because one could be just that for [HB] 4228 and [HB] 4229. Well, what you’ll, what you’ll find, if you are studying any of the laws is that 99% of the time laws are introduced to fix pre-existing laws…”

He insisted that his goal was to “figure out how do we help the kids and motivate them” and he firmly believes that technology, in the form of computerized textbooks, is the way. He said he “saw an example in my office, and they were showing me a finding that some scientists had just found out about some triple helix and everything. It was there and it was just discovered once prior. Some of the textbooks that we have out there are so outdated… I mean, just look at some, if some of the textbooks are that old and you look at a map of the world, you’d have no clue.” 

And he is not wrong, as a traditional social studies textbook is outdated before it ever reaches the hands of the students. But a “computerized textbook” or an online textbook is different than an online class, learning technologies that Rogers conflates.  

To be fair, Rogers does not support online learning for every student. He spoke of “safety factors” that should be built in to avoid parents’ using online schooling “as an excuse” if they “just don’t feel like taking [their] kid to school.” But he firmly believes the good outweighs the bad, “for some that can accelerate or they could graduate in two years instead of four years technically speaking or go on to an advanced degree…It’s not for everybody, but still you could do that with virtual learning.”

Rogers can’t explain who wrote 21f. He spoke at length about committees and numbers and how the legislative process works and how much give and take there is, with different proposed cuts he’d suggest “because I think there’s a lot of fluff in a lot of the budgets, personally” but then realizing that sometimes cutting funding meant eliminating complete programs, a difficult decision to make. He talked at length about one of his proposals that he is quite proud of during his legislative tenure, that of Best Practices. He said, “We introduced the Best Practices because too many schools, as far as I was concerned, were not doing their job and they weren’t balancing their budget, and yet they’re educating our kids to say, even maybe they don’t tell them how to balance a checkbook, but they’re trying to teach kids things. You’re doing all that education yet you can’t even handle your own stuff.”

The Best Practices that Rogers referred to was a funding incentive in Michigan, introduced in the 2011-2012 school year, that allocated an additional $50 per student to a district that meets a set amount of additional requirements. Best Practices included: charging employees at least 10% of the health care insurance premium, consolidating and privatizing services, taking competitive bids for non-instructional services, posting a financial reporting dashboard on districts’ websites, and offering online courses and blended courses to all eligible students. 

In 2011-2012, districts had to meet 4 of the 5 listed Best Practices; in 2014-2015, districts had to meet 7 out of 9 listed best practices to earn the additional per-pupil funding. Best Practices were eliminated from the school funding budget in 2015-2016. 

I asked Rogers if he knew what section 388.1621f of the School Aid Act said. He said he’d look it up, and then said, “Oh, online classes? Okay.” I asked why a law related to online classes would be passed as part of an appropriations bill when there is no funding attached to it, but Rogers insisted that “there actually is money connected to all these things. I mean it’s part of the school aid fund so that it would be a component of the overall dollars.” I asked for a specific line that might appropriate dollars for virtual learning, and Rogers showed me Section 22i, which mandated dollars for technology infrastructure in the 2013-2014 budget. 

“But isn’t this an unfunded mandate, going forward?” I asked. “Kids have to take these classes and districts have to pay for it.” 

“Well, nobody had to take anything. We were allowing that as an opportunity,” he responded. “[But] if it’s being utilized and there’s money there, then they could potentially increase that funding.” He then suggested I call the House Fiscal Agency to get some numbers to see how the funding is being utilized if I were concerned. 

Responsibility in school funding is an issue dear to Rogers’ heart. He continued, “Every single person that I talked to related to education [says] just give me more money. I mean that’s just the nature of that. It’s just give me more money. And I said…if you could prove to me that we’re not one of the worst states in the United States for third-grade reading, I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable. So where and how am I spending it then? We were in, and I’m not sure if we still are, but probably the top three in the country overall when you talk about financial aid with budgets.”

I interjected, “Unfortunately, one of the effects of 21f is that it takes money out of the brick-and-mortar classroom.”

Rogers responded, “But does it help the child that can’t do well in the brick-and-mortar?”

“You know, and that’s my question,” I answered, “because the pass rate statewide of virtual classes for K-12 is 55%.”

Rogers shook his head emphatically. “That’s not good. Nope.” 

I continued, “Now Michigan Virtual’s pass rate is much higher—they are sitting at 81% because they’re a different form of delivery and a different caliber of students. Kids are taking high-level electives and advanced courses through Michigan Virtual, and then credit recovery through other online educators. But the overall pass rate in virtual learning courses is 55.”

***

Michigan Virtual is under contract with the state of Michigan and receives $7 million annually to research and report on the effectiveness of online learning in the state. It is also the premier online learning vendor in the state, offering courses with teacher-created content and highly qualified, certified instructors posting coursework and interacting with students through an online learning management system (Blackboard). Michigan Virtual offers different strands of courses, including credit recovery, homeschooling, and Advanced Placement courses. Other popular vendors of online courses in Michigan include Edmentum (formerly Plato) and Edgenuity (formerly E2020). These courses do not include a live instructor behind the scenes. 

For instance, Andy explains how his online sociology course through E2020 was set up. 

“There’s no textbook,” he says, “just an activity for the day online. You have to read the entire thing—it’s not actually being taught to you.” There is a list of assignments he has to complete: “vocab, reading, videos, practice test, topic test, then repeat.” 

He says, “There’s a lady who recorded stuff beforehand, and then it grades itself.” There’s no feedback and no human interaction in the course. He points out, “You only know what you got wrong but it doesn’t tell you how to improve. It’s just me and the computer.” 

He needs the credit to graduate, though, and hopes that “they’ll maybe just let me walk since I will have all my other credits.” But I point out that if this is a science credit that he needs, he has to pass it to walk. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess I have to pass it.” Andy reports that he’s not really learning anything in the course. “I just hear the question, hear the answer, write it down, remember what I got taught that day. The next day, most of it is lost.” And then he says, “Sociology is about how the human being works in society. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, it’s kind of weird.” 

If Andy could redesign the course, he would have it meet in a classroom. “We can still do the work online, but it’d be cool if someone was there to let you know. It would be nice to have human interaction and talk with other students. If someone was there to correct where we’re headed if we misunderstand or are off track.” He also voices frustration at the writing prompts in the course. “I submitted my answer and there was no feedback, just that it submitted. One time I wrote in, ‘I don’t know’ as my answer and I still got 100% on the response.”

Andy is representative of so many students who fundamentally struggle in school. For an at-risk student like Andy, online courses with no human interactions only perpetuate the cycle of failure that he has experienced his entire life. Andy is the 55%.

In my interview with Bill Rogers, he slowly processed the 55% pass rate. Rogers asked, “You would probably be able to point out students that should not be doing that. Right?”

I said I definitely could. “But how can we limit those students?” I responded. “Because the way the law is written, we really can’t. We can’t just say you’re not a good candidate.”

“Which is unfortunate,” Rogers said. 

“Is there a way to write legislation that would have those limits?” I asked. “Is there a way to write protections in 21f that would help limit some of that misuse or some of those kids who are just not independent learners? They’re just not gonna make it. So is there a way to write that? Or is that impossible?” 

“No, I don’t think it is impossible,” he responded. “But it still would filter all the way down to how are you going to have your administrators and your teachers be willing to step up to the plate and acknowledge that to a parent or whatever…I mean, you know what, you see it, you’re the boots on the ground. But then how do you get the support because you know, it’s not right for the student and you’re going to be fighting with probably the administration and the parents. And that’s never fun,” he acknowledged. 

He then brainstormed ways to limit student enrollment, maybe by “percentages.” To clarify, I think he was referencing student pass percentages or GPAs, not enrollment percentages. He seemed to be on board with the idea of more discretionary authority for districts, saying, “There could be some kids where you saying, you know what, if you want to advance, you’re better off doing some online courses. Would suit you. Absolutely. You should be allowed to, you know what we used to have so that the counselors…I don’t even know if they have counselors. But counselors and although I think still you in the classroom can counsel some of these kids in some directions better than a counselor can. But that’s how I would approach it, if it truly is that you don’t have that kind of flexibility.”

I asked Rogers once again where the language for 21f came from. His response did not clarify the process. “It was probably…it all starts with just also, when I say 90-some percent of the bills are, our fixes have other bills and things or modern times have occurred. And so you need to clean up language. Most people may think even that we used to sit up there in Lansing and just think a lot, just to mess with…A lot of this stuff comes from, from my perspective, is from like people like yourself calling up, ‘Say, I’ve got this idea’ or coming into my office during whatever events were going on and saying, ‘We’d like to pitch this’ or talking to superintendents or principals and saying, ‘We’re interested in this.’ Then what I would have my staff do and myself is we’d look into it and say, ‘Is this something that is really kind of awry? Is it something that makes perfect common sense?’ Um, which is an oxymoron.” 

“But anyways, and so I would say…so I’m not sure specifically, but I’m sure people had approached us and they suggest things. Then we get with our staff and our House Fiscal [Agency] people, and we have people that are responsible for education and sit down and say, ‘Here’s the idea. What’s current law? What do we need to do? How do we frame it?’ And they try…we try to combine all of that information to come up with something.”

“So I don’t recall specifically who initiated it, whether it was our office or whether it was an outsider, but it would have come from likely somebody in the field saying, ‘Are you aware of this virtual stuff and what it has the potential of doing.’ And I always tease people, I’m terrible with a computer, but I recognize it’s a necessary evil.” he said.

“And so that’s how it then generates. And it may take even several meetings or introductions or comments, or you start to bring in other people, certain people that are obviously dealing with education and say, I just know by the way, I have a couple of superintendents I just call too, so what’s going on out there and why is this? Just to kinda, sorta keep tabs, just out of curiosity of course. But, that’s how that stuff got generated. And so when this thing came up, I mean a lot of cases, you mentioned with a six-year term [limit: 3×2-year terms], which is quite frankly ludicrous, but with that kind of a term and then all of a sudden after your second year, you’re put in charge of whatever, whether it’s budgets or policy is it’s you have to count on hopefully some very reliable people can give you good information to form an opinion. I used to tell everybody that anybody that came in, I said, ‘You’re going to sell me. You’re just a salesperson. No offense, you’re a salesperson. You’re for whatever. So if you’re going to come in and tell me the positive, what’s the other side? So that we can get this thing hopefully fixed if it really needs fixing.’ So that’s, that’s pretty much how this stuff came about.”

Rogers had not answered the question. So I asked outright: “I didn’t know if Michigan Virtual had a hand in writing it or…I was reading ALEC language and some of it is similar, but it’s not word for word. So I didn’t know if it came from ALEC.”

Rogers didn’t acknowledge my reference to ALEC, but he did say, “Well, Michigan Virtual have been in my office. Absolutely.” He also mentioned superintendents, teachers, and “even MEA [Michigan’s largest teachers and support staff union].” He mentioned state law and federal law and “putting dollars to work,” clearly a favorite talking point. 

“So,” I asked, “the substitution language H1 that contained 21f was introduced and then voted on and passed the next day. Do you think people actually read it?”

“Oh, most people don’t read most of them,” he answered. “I actually used to spend every single weekend looking at the entire, at all the bills that potentially could come up for a vote. I used to read the analysis but the school aid, because it is separate and convoluted, a lot of the people, I mean you’re looking at the dollars, but unless you had, say a specific educator in your area or a parent, they would spot check things. But fully read all this stuff? No.”

“Right,” I responded. “Because, just—from the outside looking at this, it looks like it was just kind of shoved in.”

Rogers disagreed. “But it was, no, it’s been out there and been out there for some time.” 

I questioned that. “So H1 had been out there before it was recommended as a substitution?”

Rogers insisted, “Yes. Yes, because we, as I said, with a lot of these things, those kinds of discussions are constant and that is a matter of trying to find out, do we have the money for, can we not have the money for, you know, where are your priorities? But it’s just like anything that we throw out there. Once this went again went to a conference committee, which meant we blended, we took ours in, the Senate, had theirs, sat in a room, jokingly beat each other over the head and came up with, here’s the final result. That’s how it works.”

The conversation then shifted as we talked about our former bartending gigs when we were in college and long-gone local drinking establishments like Dooley’s; Rogers lamented about “how cursive isn’t taught anymore” and how “no schools offer shop classes.” I didn’t argue those points although I wanted to set the record straight. My own elementary school-aged children absolutely did study cursive last year, and many of my high school students attend half-day county programs at the Clinton County Intermediate School District and at Lansing Community College in building trades, automotive and heavy equipment, HVAC, culinary arts, cosmetology, and so on. 

But the conversation was rapidly devolving into his beliefs about “those people” mismanaging their money in Detroit and Benton Harbor, and I needed to end the conversation rapidly while it was still amicable. I did tell him that I planned to contact former state Representative Sam Singh (D), who worked on the same committee in 2013 with Rogers; he responded, “I enjoyed working with Sam and Sam was, is..because of the party differences, but very reasonable and rational to work with. Thoroughly believe we should have a decent conversation without screaming at each other, which is what you need to do. I respected the folks on my committee.”

***

One week later, I met with Singh at his current office as chief executive officer of Public Policy Associates, a think tank in Lansing, Michigan.

“So, I’m trying to figure out how a bill becomes a law,” I said. “I mean, other than watching Schoolhouse Rock, I’m trying to understand the process.”

Singh explained that there are two budgets in the House and the Department of Education is handled differently. His understanding was that H.B. 4229 was for the Department of Education, and H.B. 4228 had the money attached, and that the policymaking would be in 4228. At the time of the introduction of these bills, Rogers was chairing both the Appropriations committee and the Department of Education committee, and Singh was only on the Department of Ed committee. He explained his voting record: “You’ll see that I voted against 4228, but I voted for 4229. I did not have a problem with the Department of Ed because I think it was covered well, was a good superintendent, you know? Okay. But I had strong disagreements with Republicans on how they funded K-12 schools.”

“So how did H1 get introduced and substituted?” I asked.

“So you start off with the shell [of the bill]. And there’s really nothing in the shell. H1 is the first bill that then usually has the guts. And then from there you [would] have H2, H3, H4 as discussions happened, as the negotiations happened and so forth.”

I pointed out, “so, H1 is where the 21f language appears, the first time it shows up. It wasn’t in the original.”

Two minutes passed in silence, as Singh looked online for the bill. He pulls up the House Fiscal Agency summary. “You know, we will not normally read word-for-word. So this is the summary that’s put together by the House Fiscal Agency, which is nonpartisan. So what we would do is we would get in the House in the morning, we have a policy staff on the Democratic side, and there was a Republican side; our staff will then go through the bill, make sure that the House Fiscal [Agency] is correct and then say, okay, based on our Democratic values, these are things that we like and don’t like.”

“So that 21f, that’s new policy right there,” I pointed out.

“So that’s new policy. But according to this, it was in the Executive, so it wasn’t …Bill [Rogers] did not create the language. Bill changed the language or the Republicans changed the language.”

“Where’d they get the language?” I asked.

“That I don’t know,” he answered. “So again, like I said, the Executive started it, right? So go back to the Executive budget of 2013, find that boilerplate, and that started off with the Governor (Rick Snyder). I don’t know who was advising the Governor, but that came from him. And then we made, or the House committee made some changes. So instead of 5-12 [grades], we changed it to 7-12, which actually seems to be a little bit better. It deletes some references to Michigan Virtual University, and it deletes a provision that required the pupil to show past success in order to enroll in online…It caps the amount the district has to pay for an online course, to 1/12th of district’s foundation allowance per semester. So I think what happened—I wouldn’t have been at any of these meetings because I was in the minority—I bet you schools came and said, ‘Hey, we don’t like some of this.’ And they went to Bill and they said, ‘Listen, don’t do fifth graders, you know, they shouldn’t be doing online.’ And so he shortened it. He [added] some provisions that probably the school districts [wanted], like capping. I’m sure that cap came directly from a school management organization. Like, ‘Hey, this could be an unlimited amount of money hit to us, you know, can you at least cap it?’ So I think he probably could have gently made it better than where the Executive’s started off. And I’m assuming the Executive’s actually has MVU actually in the actual boilerplate. I bet you MVU is the one who pitched this.”

I responded, “I assumed it was MVU, or that MVU was taking ALEC language. But there’s no way to track that.”

Singh said, “I wouldn’t know if it would have been ALEC. But you know, it wouldn’t surprise me that MVU would say, ‘Hey, we’ve got all the time and courses, you know, why shouldn’t we be…’” he trailed off.

“So it’s interesting to me,” I pointed out, “that what you thought was changed was to 7-12, because the actual 21f that passed is 6-12.”

“It’s 6-12?” he asked. “So…This is on 4/10 [April]. So this went to the House floor, we built that version, and then it goes to the Senate. And so, so we go to look at the actual House [version]. This is what we sent over to the Senate. And then I don’t have their actual report, but they did their report on 5/23 [May]…” Ninety seconds pass, as Singh read through the documents.

“Yeah,” I commiserated, “I spent weeks reading these, trying to figure out how it all went down.”

He read through the Senate report, which discussed funding, 80% on enrollment, 20% on completion. “It should have been 7-12,” he reiterated. “Well, you’re saying it went to 6-12. I wonder if that, and you think that happened here? Or do you…did that happen at some later point of time? Could we have changed it, you know, in a different budget? The 6-12…are you thinking it was always 6? Because according to this it should have 7.”

Not only was a limitation to the boilerplate that Singh fought for no longer in the law, but all of the stipulations allowing a district to deny enrollment were never in the Executive boilerplate in the first place.

I pointed out to him that in 21f, “there’s very little right to deny. A district can deny enrollment only if the student is K-5. Only if they already have those credits. Only if they wouldn’t get academic credit for the class or if it doesn’t meet a graduation requirement or if they failed a previous course in the same subject matter. But otherwise, there’s really no right to deny. So for example, I’m a high school English teacher. Some students think I’m mean, so they’re just going to take it online.”

He looked at me. “And schools can’t stop that?”

I answered, “Right. Schools can’t stop that. ‘Your class is hard, I’m just going to take it online.’”

“How much is that occurring?” he asked.

“I mean probably two or three or four students a year.”

“In every school?” he asked.

“Yes. Unless the district is denying. I have talked to one principal who says that, yes, he is denying. If he felt that it was bad for the student, he’d be willing to risk his job and deny. And I had another principal telling me that they have deemed every single one of their courses as a graduation requirement. And so therefore students have to take every brick-and-mortar course because those are the exact graduation requirements.”

“That’s how they get around that,” Singh said.

“Yeah, that’s how they’re getting around it. But most districts know if you as a parent, say, ‘Under 21 f I want my kid to take freshman English online and Spanish online,’ there’s nothing they can do. And the statewide pass rate for online classes is 55%.”

There was a long pause.

“So it’s pretty low,” he said.

“It’s terrible,” I said. “It’s terrible. It’s 55%. Now Michigan Virtual’s pass rate is a little higher. Theirs is 81%. Their classes are also much more expensive.”

“So a parent can request any online provider, right, not just MVU?” 

“Yeah. So it can be Edgenuity, it can be Edmentum, it can be any of the online providers in the district course catalog. And MVU has teachers, there are instructors. But there are also online providers where it’s static content. I mean it’s like a throwback to the old CD-ROM.”

Singh mused, “Because I’ve always been…I love public schools, I’m against charter expansion. I was definitely against the cyber schools. But I always thought MVU was at least a good actor…at least I thought it was that way.”

“So—I think that they are.” I said. “But I think in the crafting of this language, they padded themselves pretty heavily. They created a situation where districts can’t deny MVU courses.” 

Singh said, “I think what happened here is that’s where I think the Executive’s started off with better language. And so if you go back to the crafting of this, it was the House that took it out.”

“Right. Even Bill [Rogers] said, ‘Districts can’t deny?’ and I said, ‘Districts can’t deny. That’s literally what it says.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, they should be able to deny,” and I’m like, ‘Look at the law!’ So that was really interesting. So either he’s changed his story or he really didn’t know that that’s what the bill said.”

Singh said, “Well, these groups will like come to their leadership and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this should be the language, you know, and then they’ll come to Bill….” He stopped talking abruptly and asked me to stop recording the conversation, before he finished his sentence. Off the record, he continued his thought.

A few minutes later, the on-the-record  discussion continued. “So according to the House Fiscal [Agency] analysis,” Singh explained, “it was clear that the Executive had better language on denial and that the House changed it. So I don’t think any member…Republican or Democrat…they might not have read it. I mean, this is a 12-page document. So they might not always remember it, but it’s very clear that that was a change. It was a change and it was initiated by the House and the House always had a very…it was considerably more conservative than the Senate Republicans and was very driven by the DeVos family agenda. So the Great Lakes Education Project was also probably part of this. The charter school lobby. They were always in the ear of Republicans.”

I asked, “And why would this piece that is ‘virtual courses definition’ be something that would go through Appropriations? Because there is no money here.”

He responded, “Right. So the only way you can tell the school districts really what to do is tie it to the money. Right? And so that’s where a lot of policy…there’s a policy committee, but a lot of policy gets done through Appropriations. That’s one of the reasons why I went to Appropriations. You can put boilerplate language in and that forces anyone who pulls this money out to have to abide by that, and no school districts are gonna say ‘no’ to their allowance. Right? So this forces them right to be able to do this. So that’s why it’s in the School Aid Act.”

“Because I said, ‘Bill, this is an unfunded mandate,” I explained, “and he said, ‘No, there’s money, it’s the School Aid Act.’ and I’m like, ‘Like if my school, 80% of the kids want to take their 2 online courses, I’ve got to kick out all that money for them to take those online courses plus pay somebody at the school a salary and benefits to monitor and mentor those students. Because part of the law says that you have to have a brick-and-mortar, highly qualified mentor. So I would say I’m paying twice.”

“Right,” Singh agreed. “So I think you can make that case…but I think what Bill and his people would say is that the School Aid Act is giving them money, so they have to work within that money.”

“That’s what he said,” I explained. “He insisted that there was funding in 22i to purchase technology. But I said that money set aside in 2013 to purchase technology isn’t going to pay for online classes that students want to enroll in in 2019. That’s not even logical.”

“Well, look, there was nothing logical about the whole DeVos agenda,” Singh said. 

***

Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, has long been an outspoken proponent of school choice, and her family has bankrolled millions of dollars towards the promotion of charter schools and the systematic undermining of public schools in the name of competition and choice. A long-time advocate for school vouchers, DeVos and her husband Dick DeVos have donated millions of dollars to the Republican Party and she founded a pro-school choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, that “works to create programs and pass laws that require using public funds to pay for private school tuition via vouchers and similar programs.”
Singh continued, “So the governor [Snyder] was forced to be bought. Because he was ‘the education guy’ and his education people were, you know, very much…,he did the whole cyber schools [push] and there is no other state that pays a full allowance for cyber schools. The majority of the states that do cyber schools only get like 70%, 60%. We do 100%. So, then of course the governor caught on to that, and he decided to try to make a change on it. But he couldn’t. Because if you’re a cyber school, you’re not gonna want to give the money back. The money’s there. Their lobby’s pretty strong. And so the Republicans buckled every time.” 

“In 2012, [he] made [his] decisions on expanding charter schools and now, with the [former] governor I think if you had an honest conversation….you know, because he was sold a bill of goods on the EAA, all this stuff…[The EAA (Education Achievement Authority) was created in 2011 to take over and turn around failing schools in Detroit. However, it was ultimately not successful, as two-thirds of the EAA’s schools performed in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. The Detroit Public School system reabsorbed the EAA schools in 2017 and the EAA and was disbanded.] In Detroit, you know, you took the cap off of cyber schools and that screwed over Detroit. ‘So you were going to try to change education,’…it’d be really cool to, for somebody to say, ‘Hey, these are like the big things that you did in your first year and a half because you were going to be changing education. And then look what you’ve done.’”

“And I think if he’s honest, he will say, ‘I made some mistakes.’ And he tried to fix them, but he couldn’t because at that point the Republicans were like, ‘We already got what we wanted.’”

“Okay, so…” I asked, “since this went through in Appropriations, how do we ever go back to tweak this piece?”

Singh replied, “So every year you can tweak it. If schools don’t like this, they could ask the governor to change the boilerplate. Then the legislature has to approve it. So with a Republican legislature, it’s going to be hard. So that’s why… there’s gotta be like a strategy. You’re gonna have to have all these school districts talk to their Appropriations members and say, ‘Hey, we gotta just tweak this, give us a little bit more.’ And there will be a fight. Now the best way to do it under this political environment is to get the House or the Senate to start to change. So it’s not viewed as a Democratic governor change.” 

“But I think the reality is there’s so many bigger things for the school management groups to worry about that I’m sure that this is the lowest thing on their priority list. So when they get their hour in front of the chairman of whatever, we’re probably not talking about this, right? So it’s probably easier for them to actually go to Emily Laidlaw, the budget director, or Chris Kolbe on the Democratic side. It’s like, ‘Hey you guys, let’s tweak this.’ So it’s probably easier to start in the budget office than to come in on the Executive…I think if teachers organize around this and went and talked to elected House and  Senate Republicans…I think you have to use your associations. Mostly the management. I don’t know if MEA or AFT [American Federation of Teachers] actually care about this piece because they’re worried about the actual numbers that are coming into the schools. So, I think you’ve got to get to the ones who can then influence the governor’s initial budget. I don’t know if you could get a school board member, a Republican, to talk to their state rep. I think that’s where you’ve got to start.”

***

It is clear to me, after these conversations, that neither side of the aisle intended to write a law that would eventually lead to a 55% pass rate for students in Michigan. Both Rogers and Singh believed that Michigan Virtual was acting in good faith, and Rogers, especially, believed that students could benefit from increased access to coursework not offered at the local schools. Neither ex-representative, however, is a trained educator, and it seems that legislators who were voting on and passing this bill never consulted the research that pertains to adolescence and virtual courses.

Both sides of the aisle admitted to not having completely read the bills as presented. They both relied on the summary put out by the House Fiscal Agency and never read—and therefore never considered the implications of—the very limited discretion given to local districts to act in what they determined to be the best interests of their own students. Both sides were looking at the dollar signs in educational policy and arguing their philosophical differences about school choice and how to spend education dollars.

Unfortunately, the end result is a law that ties the hands of local school districts and puts students in a situation where they don’t have guidance on the best path to take. Some students, like Kate, recognize when an online course isn’t the best option for them, and they have the ability to self-advocate and problem-solve. Other students, like Andy, end up trapped in a system with no feedback, no support, and no options. 

This was a law with arguably good intentions: supporting student and parental choice, providing equity of access to educational opportunities, and extending learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. But this law has resulted in a situation where districts cannot do what is in the best interest of the students and they are forced, by law, to allow students to opt for online classes. Then the districts have to pay for those classes, pay for mentors to support the students on site while they take virtual classes, and then attempt to pick up the pieces after the students crash and burn. 

Because this law is part of the School Aid Act, it cannot be changed by voters, and instead must be changed by the legislature. The current governor, Gretchen Whitmer (D) is a long-time supporter and vocal advocate of public schools. But with a Republican Senate, any bill or language that she would support would be immediately lambasted as politically motivated and would die in committee before making it to the floor. 

To change the law, a Republican will have to start the process. But in the current climate, there are so many other issues facing the legislature, that a tiny section of the School Aid Act is barely a blip on the radar of those in our government struggling with the issues of underfunded schools coupled with districts in terrible debt, falling test scores, children in poverty, a teacher shortage, and a bloated infrastructure of crumbling buildings. 

The path to the writing of a law allowing virtual classes for K-12 students in Michigan was convoluted and incoherent. The resulting law needs to be rewritten to allow districts more power in determining the best path for their students to take, and to provide more funding to districts so that they can better support students taking online courses and help them succeed.  That is because the law that we currently have, written in the name of equity and access and choice, actually promotes a system that facilitates failure for our most vulnerable students.