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Michigan's shadowy school plan

The Detroit News reports on a "secret work group" meeting in Michigan to develop a "value school" – a lower-cost model for K-12 public education.

Not surprisingly this clandestine group, which includes aides to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, has some ties to Indiana's education reform movement.

One member of the group is Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group, a Grand Rapids company. As I blogged here last July, Huizenga shows up as a player in Indiana campaign finance. Founder J.C. Huizenga has donated nearly $200,000 to GOP candidates in Indiana over the past several years, including a $5,000 donation to the House Republican Campaign Committee last year. In 2010, he gave $30,000 to the American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher group operated out of Terre Haute by Citizens United legal adviser Jim Bopp.

Last October the American Federation for Children made an in-kind donation to Superintendent Tony Bennett's re-election campaign. The $49,965 contribution appears to be for production and ad placement of a campaign commercial.

The school reform web is tightly woven – the same names of individuals, companies and foundations appear repeatedly. The Michigan-based Oxford Foundation, which made the initial $20,000 grant to the "skunk works" project to establish a voucher-like funding mechanism for Michigan public schools, is a new one, however.

It's difficult to learn much about it because Guidestar, which posts tax documents for nonprofit organizations, notes that the Oxford Foundation's tax-exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990 for three consecutive years. "Further investigation and due diligence are warranted," the listing notes.

A director of the foundation, Lansing attorney Richard McClellan, is a school voucher proponent, according to the Detroit News.

The Michigan proposal appears to have a goal of creating a "value school" that costs just $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to the report. Online courses appear to be one of the methods identified in cutting costs, of course. Virtual school operators are among the most persistent of the school-reform crowd, and their proposals to replace teachers with computer courses finds a receptive audience with those seeking to destroy labor unions.

The secret Michigan group seemed to consider itself an "outside team of creative thinkers," but it looks more like representatives of private interests looking for its own way to tap into Michigan tax dollars

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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