Highland Park Reform May Have to Begin With Finances

Less than nine weeks after Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Joyce Parker as emergency manager for the Highland Park School District, Parker finds herself a defendant in a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU lawsuit notes that a paucity of Highland Park students have met the state’s proficiency benchmark in reading, and alleges that the district failed to provide adequate assistance to students who were not reading at grade level. Just 35 percent of fourth-grade students and 25 percent of seventh-graders scored "proficient" on state standardized tests.

It is commendable that the ACLU is advocating for higher academic standards in Michigan public schools. But one of the ACLU’s arguments is that though the emergency manager has “intervened on account of extreme financial mismanagement … it has not done the same with regard to the severe instructional failures in the schools. … ”

In fact, addressing the district’s financial mismanagement may be the best way to locate resources for greater academic support to students.  Highland Park has been spending a lot: For the 2010-11 school year, Highland Park reported spending almost $20,000 per student. That’s 70 percent more than the statewide average of $11,560.

One might expect after reading the ACLU lawsuit that a disproportionate amount of that money did not go to directly and efficiently educating Highland Park students. That appears to be the case when the district’s expenditures are compared to statewide averages.

For instance, Highland Park spent $1,009 per student on administrators’ salaries and benefits during the 2011 school year. That’s 50 percent more than the statewide average.

But that’s not the only place Highland Park overspent. The district reported spending about $2.5 million on employee health insurance, about $2,164 per student. It exceeded the state average here by 58 percent.

One particularly disheartening paragraph of the ACLU’s brief describes 50 students being crammed into a single classroom for an entire semester, with some students forced to stand for lack of chairs. And yet, according to state data, Highland Park still managed to employ more teachers per student than the statewide average. The district reported employing one full-time teacher for every 13 students, whereas the state average is one full-time teacher for every 17 students.

Though Highland Park reported employing a large proportion of teachers, according to the ACLU filing many didn’t teach: Some teachers allowed students to sleep at their desks during class time and others failed to provide direct instruction.

The powers of school district emergency managers are broad, and include the ability to rearrange district finances and to sidestep previous restrictions that may have allowed ineffective teachers to continue to teach students.

Highland Park is a district where such powers are, sadly, needed. But it may take more than the two months granted Parker to shift district resources away from waste, like an overly large administrative staff, to helping students read. 

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.