The day Michigan killed public schools (and then created the system we have today)


If you’re like me and you know just a little bit about the history of education in Michigan, you might already know that a lot of what we see in our schools can be traced back to reforms made in the 1990s under then-governor John Engler.

But what you may not know is that these education policies can actually be traced to events that happened in a single 24-hour period in the summer of 1993.

The story of how it happened is an example of how change – even momentous, tectonic change that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – can seem totally impossible right up until the moment it becomes inevitable.

I came across the history of that important day while reading a doctoral thesis by James Goenner. He’s currently with theNational Charter School Institute. His thesis for Michigan State University (which is available online) traces the history of charter schools in Michigan. Our state was one of the early leaders in developing charter schools (Minnesota was the first state to authorize charters). But charters were just one of the educational reforms we can trace back to that day in 1993.

Prior to Proposal A’s passage in 1994, Michigan’s richest school districts spent about three times as much per pupil as Michigan’s poorest, according to James Goenner.

For his thesis, Goenner interviewed about a dozen people involved in creating Michigan’s charter school law, many of them allies of Engler. If you’re looking for a critique of the charters, Goenner’s thesis isn’t the place to find it. If you’re interested in history, though, Goenner’s account is essential.

Prior to 1993, Michigan had a major problem with how it financed public schools. Funding came primarily through local property taxes. That meant places with high-value property could spend a lot on schools. Those without it could not. The richest school districts, in places like Bloomfield Hills, spent about three times as much per pupil as the poorest districts. Read more>>