Legislators to educators

HANCOCK – The Copper Country Intermediate School held a special legislative luncheon Friday afternoon, inviting State Representative Scott Dianda and Senator Tom Casperson to address a group of representatives from local school districts. The legislators answered questions from attendees but also looked to the local school leaders for insight into how issues are specifically affecting the Upper Peninsula.

“I’m not an expert in this, I’m not a teacher or an administrator,” Casperson said. “That’s why we need you and we need to have these discussions.”

The talk covered a wide range of topics, including recent legislation, vocational training, issues such as core standards and testing and issues that are pertinent to the Upper Peninsula, such as bussing.

“I’m very much interested in having a conversation about something that I see as critical to us up here which is the transportation piece,” Dianda said. “I was talking to my colleagues down there on both sides of the aisle and in our rural areas it’s been a problem with the cost of fuel on transportation.”

In response to questions about recent talk of consolidating school districts and ISDs in the state of Michigan, both Casperson and Dianda agreed strongly that would not work in the U.P., where transportation costs are already an issue.

“Good luck with that,” Dianda said. “Things are a lot different outside of the metropolitan Detroit area where you have such a large population all in one spot.”

A large topic of discussion over the course of several issues was state funding. Dianda and Caperson acknowledged that many aspects of how funding is determined are flawed and looked to the attendees for suggestions and feedback on how to improve the process. Concern was expressed at successful, small schools not receiving the same financial assistance as failing schools in more urban areas.

“Sometimes I have discussions with people who ask me if the bankruptcy in Detroit is going to affect the U.P.,” Casperson said “The problems in Detroit already do affect the U.P. – look at K-12 funding and where it’s going. Schools who are doing well aren’t the problem, and, in the legislative world, we’re focused on the problem. So that’s something we have to work on.”

“There are school districts in lower Michigan getting $12,000 per head and we’re trying to get by on $7,000 per student and that average is not right,” Dianda said. “There are definitely winners and losers on that.”

Moving from specific laws and regulations, the legislators and attendees also discussed broader educational issues, such as testing and vocational training in high schools. Although no firm plans on how to fix those issues were reached, the discussion on the importance of legislation for oversight and of local decision-making capabilities was beneficial for both sides.

One issue brought to the table was holding children back from fourth grade if they do not pass the third grade reading level test at the end of the year. Dianda, Casperson and the school district representatives agreed that system was flawed and focusing on early preparation and intervention would be more beneficial for the students. However, not every school has the resources to provide services like tutors to help struggling students.

“How do you come up with the money to do that?” Casperson asked. “Because it is a money thing. And I guess that’s where we come in.”

Throughout the event Dianda and Casperson echoed many of the concerns expressed by the educators. They encouraged the educators to continue working at the local level to improve schools and reach out to them when necessary.