Public outcry on ‘secret panel’ continues as education authority steps in

Amid widespread news reports that the governor sanctioned a “secret panel” to discuss ways in which to reshape public education in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder responded by asking Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, to lead future discussions in a more public and transparent manner.

News reports began to surface approximately two weeks ago that the governor’s clandestine group of computer software companies, charter school representatives and several state employees had been meeting for several months to explore ways of integrating technological advancements into the public education system, as well as looking at options to implement a school voucher system.

The secrecy of the project drew outcry from educators and other stakeholders from around the state, saying that the lack of transparency was the opposite of what Gov. Snyder had promised when he ran for the state’s highest office in 2011.

In addition, the panel did not include teachers or administrators. While Snyder initially defended his administration’s endorsement of the group and its methods of meeting, he quickly changed directions.

“The governor still is very interested in studying how current and future technologies can improve education delivery and outcomes for Michigan students,” Flanagan said recently to a gathering of school business officials in Grand Rapids. “At my urging, I believe the governor feels that these issues are best served by being in an open and public process, and he asked me to be directly involved.”

In a press release statement issued on April 24, Flanagan expressed that the reform group would adopt an inclusive process by extending invitations to the State Board of Education, K-12 education stakeholders, early childhood education stakeholders, school business officials, teacher preparation programs, education technology experts, colleges, career and technical education leaders, post-secondary programs and the public.

Flanagan also emphasized that the group will not discuss school vouchers, and that any savings that may be realized from the use of technology will be reinvested back into the schools.

“Kids today are wired into technology from an early age,” Flanagan said. “We must adapt our system of education to be customized to their learning tools, and not the learning tools with which their parents and grandparents were taught.”

For House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills), the governor’s latest decision is a step in the right direction. Greimel had earlier denounced the governor’s advocacy of the secret group.

“It was very disturbing that the governor had this secret group form and meet without any form of transparency,” Greimel said during a phone interview. “The group’s name, ‘skunk work’ really said it all. The governor and his administration probably realized that this looked bad and that they needed to back peddle.”

On the reform group’s new direction: “It is certainly an improvement to have Superintendent Flanagan lead the group. But more importantly, it’s making sure that the process is transparent and that the public have an opportunity to participate and provide input. Most importantly, there needs to be the involvement of educators to shape this discussion group.”

On technology as a short cut to quality education: “There are no shortcuts when it comes to quality education,” Greimel said. “You can’t sit kids in front of a computer screen and expect they’ll get the same amount of personal attention and help as they would from a teacher. It’s time to stop thinking of public schools as an expense, when in reality they are the best investment that we can make.”

Greimel said that he plans to meet with Flanagan regarding the direction of the group.

“I hope to reach out to him next week about my concerns and the need for the process to be more transparent,” said Greimel. “Certainly there may be some disagreement over policy, but if the process is transparent, at least the public can have a discussion in the open.”

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