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Local activists make impression in Lansing



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October 05, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

A local group of citizens continues to make quite a bit of noise in Lansing.

They are making sure lawmakers hear their deep concerns over the direction of education reform in our state.

Members of the Lake Orion-based Michigan Citizens Advocating for Public Education (MI-CAPE) testified last week before the state's Senate Education Committee. They discussed the proposed mandatory open enrollment law that is part of a package of seven bills on "parental empowerment" currently being debated by Michigan lawmakers.

MI-CAPE member Birgit McQuiston, who also is a member of the Lake Orion Board of Education, expressed their concerns regarding language in the bill that diminishes local control and decision making and seeks to mandate statewide out-of-district enrollment.

It appears the grassroots organization made a favorable impression during the hearing.

"MI-CAPE is a great example for other groups around the state," said Peter Spadafore, assistant director of government relations, Michigan Association of School Boards. "They pay attention, do their homework, are factual and effective in a respectful way."

Lake Orion Community Schools Superintendent Marion Ginopolis, who was present at the meeting, also received positive feedback on MI-CAPE from the association.

"I've been told this group has some power and growing influence," she said. "I strongly believe the letter campaign (against mandatory open enrollment) and other input spurred by them has made a difference. It has forced legislators to listen to the concerns of our community."

In addition to the senate hearings, MI-CAPE members have met with other legislators individually. These have included State Representative Brad Jacobsen; Senator Jim Marleau; Senator Phil Pavlov, chairman of the senate education committee and Greg Tedder, strategic advisor for Gov. Snyder.

MI-CAPE founder Karen Appledorn credits their success to working hard to get "doors opened" and present their opinions in front of the right people.

"We seem to be refreshing to legislators," McQuiston added. "Our group is truly a grassroots organization. We don't have a lobbyist. Nobody is getting paid. There is no ulterior motive other than trying to do what is best for the kids in Lake Orion."

MI-CAPE's meeting earlier this month with Tedder was a coup, according to Appledorn, who said people in Lansing were shocked the group was able to secure such a meeting. She said they discussed their concerns with open enrollment and how it will not fix failing school districts.

"We had a very constructive meeting," Tedder said. "Gov. Snyder is always interested in hearing from the opposing side. We think citizen involvement makes the democratic process work."

Tedder reiterated that Gov. Snyder firmly believes parents know what is in the best interests of their children and should have choices in regard to their education, but he lauded the efforts of the MI-CAPE group.

"The Lake Orion group was very professional," he said. "I think it's fair to say lobbyists are not needed to be heard."

The proposed legislation would dictate schools must accept students from outside their districts if there is excess capacity in their buildings. Legislators currently say such capacity decisions will be made at the local level, but the wording is vague, Appledorn said.

She added the consensus among lawmakers they have spoken to is that litigation will ultimately determine the "capacity" of a district.

Legal wrangling aside, such a plan is simply impractical, McQuiston said. This year LOCS, for example, enrolled more than 200 students between mid-August and the start of school. This would be after the date the district would have to declare its enrollment figures to the state under the proposed law.

If the state lets out-of-district students take empty seats, kids living in Lake Orion but enrolling late in the summer for whatever reason could be shut out of attending school here, she said.

"Beyond losing a sense of control, such a move defies logic," McQuiston said.

The fact is 83 percent of the districts in the state already offer open enrollment, Appledorn said. This was their choice and they have set specific parameters around their programs regarding the selection of outside students. If the legislation passes, such local control will disappear.

What's more, Appledorn said, records show kids are not flocking to these districts with open enrollment, she said. "They want to stay where they're at, so let's fix the real problems of these failing districts."

This includes parental accountability, which is not being discussed in Lansing, Appledorn said, noting Indiana's school reform moves in recent years include a focus on parental responsibilities in educating children.

The public pressure appears to be working. Section 105 of Bill 624 dealing with open enrollment has been separated from the "parental empowerment" package for further discussion among lawmakers. "The amount of criticism and concern is causing the bill's (supporters) to pull it out so not to jeopardize the entire package that they are voting on," McQuiston said.

This week, Mi-CAPE is meeting again with Senator Marleau. The group also will be meeting with Tedder again, as the bill moves through the committee process over the next month, he said.

McQuiston said MI-CAPE's efforts will not end when the open enrollment issue is decided. The next issue the group plans on addressing focuses on charter schools. The state wants to lift restrictions on these privately run operations. If that is the case, MI-CAPE wants them to be as accountable for their actions and spending as public institutions.

"I love want we are doing," she said. "This proves that citizens can make a difference."

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