Commentary
11:45 am
Wed March 9, 2011

Funding Education

Mike Simeck, the superintendent of schools in Berkley, Michigan, has something in common with Governor Snyder -- or at least, with the way the governor ran his businesses:

He believes in proven results. “I run an organization that is the largest employer in our city, where I would hear from our client base immediately if we begin to fail,” he told me last night at ten o’clock, after each of us had put in more than a full day.

“I run this thing based on empirical evidence, on data and results, and as a result, we’ve been successful.”

That‘s no idle boast. Berkley is a small but diverse district with a little less than five thousand students. Roughly speaking, they are two-thirds white; one-quarter black, one eighth Hispanic and Asian.

He has affluent kids from Huntington Woods, working and middle class kids from Berkley, poor kids and Orthodox Jews from a slice of Oak Park. They run lean and mean and get results.

Want proof? More than four out of every five Berkley students who apply to the University of Michigan get in. Their ACT scores are way over the national average. Simeck, who’s been in his job for four years, says this is no accident. When other school districts outperform Berkley, they study them and make changes.

That’s helped lead to Berkley High being recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s “public elite”  high schools.

Yet Simeck is deeply concerned that Governor Snyder’s budget is going to destroy all that. He’s been in Lansing, talking to new legislators and state officials. They tell him the governor’s budget is based on a hunch that if business taxes are dramatically lowered, it will bring new investment and prosperity flowing into the state.

Mike Simeck thinks it’s only reasonable to ask, “what data do you have supporting this plan?” That’s what he would be asked if he wanted to make radical changes in his district.

And if the governor’s budget is adopted, it will indeed mean radical change -- and not change for the better. Berkley will face a deficit of $4.9 million dollars, well over a tenth of its entire budget. This is a district that cut its fat years ago.

They privatized food service. There’s no bus service, except for special education. The district has had vacancies for an art teacher and a social worker for six months, because Simeck has a policy of no placeholders, of not hiring anyone till they find the right person.

The governor’s budget would mean laying off teachers, increasing class size, and perhaps getting rid of all music, art, athletics and physical education. Whatever they do, “We cannot avoid impacting learning and achievement,” he told me.

Those two things, are of course, what Michigan’s kids and our state need if we are to have a future.

So Mike Simeck is going to do what he can to persuade our lawmakers to think again about cutting the school aid fund. He knows it won’t be easy.  Most of the legislators are new. Many are still learning how education funding works.

But he thinks they should be able to grasp this:

You may be able to put off buying a new car. But Michigan only gets one chance at properly educating a child.