Snyder administration holding secret meetings to develop school voucher plan

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has been holding secret meetings with corporate special interests to develop a plan for introducing school vouchers in Michigan.

Members of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration have been holding secret meetings to develop a school voucher plan for Michigan, the Detroit News revealed Friday in a special investigative report.

The clandestine meetings have been taking place since December, and are being headed by state employees and one of the leaders of the far-right Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The workgroup is developing a "model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers," the News reported.

School vouchers allow already-dwindling public education funds to be diverted to for-profit private schools, leaving Michigan public school students to struggle with overcrowded classrooms, less instruction and fewer basic supplies like books and pencils.

As is stands, school voucher plans violate the Michigan Constitution, which bans public aid to nonpublic schools. Because vouchers rob kids of the resources they need to succeed, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2000 constitutional amendment that would have allowed the use of vouchers. Voters rejected a similar proposal in 1978.

It appears the will of the people and the state Constitution matter little to the Snyder administration's secret workgroup, however. The group is hatching a plan under which Michigan would open a number of so-called "value schools," which would replace the instruction students receive from teachers with long-distance video conferencing, the News reported.

The goal of these back-room meetings is to run these "technology-centric" value schools for $5,000 per pupil, according to the News. That's nearly half the amount that the average Michigan school district currently invests per pupil.

That meager funding would be distributed to students by way of a "Michigan Education Card," a form of a debit card that students would use to pay for tuition and other education-related expenses.

Snyder's chief information officer, David Behen, chairs the secret group. He was quoted in the News as saying the workgroup's vision is "in line with what [Snyder] wants to do."

MEA President Steve Cook released a statement Friday afternoon blasting the secret effort.

"This report that Gov. Rick Snyder's administration and corporate special interests are hatching a secret plan to bring school vouchers to Michigan is disturbing and infuriating," Cook said. "Such a plan would rob our kids of the resources they need and divert more taxpayer dollars into the pockets of rich CEOs."

The covert workgroup consists of about 20 people, the News reported. The majority of participants come from information technology corporations, which would stand to profit heavily from replacing teachers with teleconferencing.

Members of the workgroup include representatives of the InfoReady Corp. in Ann Arbor, Vectorform LLC in Royal Oak, Billhighway Inc. in Troy, and the Huizenga Group of Grand Rapids.

The group also includes Rod Davenport, the state's chief technology officer. Richard McLellan, secretary of the Mackinac Center's Board of Directors, asked to serve as the workgroup's treasurer, the News reported.

"The members of this self-defined ‘skunk works' come from the same political and corporate interests who pushed through a tax break for themselves that was paid for by a $1 billion cut to our children's schools," Cook said. "Now they're developing a secret plan to cheapen our kids' education and replace teachers with teleconferencing. Their skunk works moniker is very accurate -- this plan truly stinks."

State employees on the workgroup were told to use private email accounts, which unlike government email accounts are not subject to public disclosure.

Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools at Bay Mills Community College, has also attended a meeting. Shannon told the News that the college, which operates 42 charter schools across the state due to a loophole in the charter school law, is "very interested" in opening a value school.

A representative from the Education Achievement Authority has also sat in on a meeting, the News reported.

Remarkably, no educators are part of the secret workgroup. Behen was quoted as saying that it was an intentional decision not "put a bunch of teachers" on the panel.

"Just like if I was going to do something new with law firms, I wouldn't bring a bunch of lawyers in," Behen said, according to the News.

Oakland Schools business teacher and former Michigan Teacher of the Year Paul Galbenski was initially part of the workgroup, but later left.

"It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system," Galbenski told the News. "That's when I started questioning my involvement."

Cook said: "Snyder's secret group deliberately shut out input from educators in favor of information technology companies who stand to make money off this scheme. This is a direct attempt to undermine elected school boards, principals and school employees, and it's a slap in the face to teachers and education support professionals, who work tirelessly to educate our children every day."

"Rather than holding secret meetings with corporate special interests to concoct new school voucher schemes and value-meal education, Snyder should be making the proper funding of our kids' schools a top priority," Cook said.

"Michigan kids deserve a world-class education -- not a dime store diploma," he said.

Everyone who cares about public education should be outraged by Snyder's secret group and the damage their plans would do to our schools and our students. Snyder needs to hear from you on this issue. Call his office at (517) 373-3400, submit your thoughts online, or write to P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, MI 48909.