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Guest commentary

Asking the questions that impact students

Michael F. Rice, Ph.D. is superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools, the largest district in southwest Michigan, and the president of Middle Cities Education Association, the urban school district consortium in the state.

Michael F. Rice, Ph.D. is superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools, the largest district in southwest Michigan, and the president of Middle Cities Education Association, the urban school district consortium in the state.

Recently, Republicans and Democrats have been debating whether K-12 funding increased or decreased between 2010 and 2013 in the state. It’s a great question for political and finance geeks.

But it’s the wrong question for Michigan.

The question citizens and policymakers should be asking is: Are the 1.5 million Michigan public school children better served by their K-12 funding now than in 2010? The answer: They are not.

Has K-12 funding increased or decreased? The response to this question depends on what you mean by K-12 funding.

The per pupil foundation allowance, the base per-pupil amount that school districts receive, largely from state funding, has decreased since 2010.
The governor proposed and the state legislature approved a $470-per-pupil cut in the foundation allowance in 2011.

Even with small increases in the last two years for a number of districts, across the state school districts have lower foundation allowances now than in 2010.

The increased cost of the state-controlled Michigan Public School Employees Retirement Systems (MPSERS) has been substantial and has in fact diverted funds from the classroom.

The cost increases in MPSERS have been made much worse as a result of decisions made by state policymakers over the years. For instance, in 2010, the state adopted an early retirement incentive for school employees. This incentive was expensive and is significantly contributing to the higher costs of the pension system.

Another reason for the rise in the cost of MPSERS has been the fact that the state does not require charter schools, whose numbers are no longer capped by the state, to contribute to MPSERS. When charter schools are permitted to opt out of MPSERS, those that are still in the system by law ─ traditional public schools ─ have to pay higher rates.

The Real Question: Are children better served by their funding now than in 2010? They are not.

Though total dollars per student have increased when MPSERS contributions are included, what school districts have to spend on children for their education has decreased in both nominal (before inflation) and real (after inflation) terms.

What students and staff have experienced in their classrooms and schools has certainly declined. Districts across the state, from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, from Lake Superior to the Indiana border, have cut repeatedly in the last three years.

Forty-six school districts, approximately eight percent of the districts in the state, are deficit districts under some form of financial oversight by the state. Some districts have shut their doors. Others are headed toward financial oversight or dissolution.

Not only have children been hurt in their education funding since 2010, the harm goes back a number of years earlier. Though budget cuts across the state accelerated sharply in 2011, districts had been cutting for years before 2011. Indeed, the value of the education foundation allowance dollar, based on a normal market basket of goods, has declined by one-sixth since 2005. In other words, school districts can today buy only 5/6 of what they could buy, with the same enrollment, in 2005.

It was Oscar Wilde, the great English playwright, who once said a cynic was “a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” For those engaging in the current debate, a better focus would be on what children experience. And they experience fewer resources in their classes and schools as a rule than they did in 2010, or in 2005.

Resources for Michigan public schools are trending away from the states that produce the best education results, states like Massachusetts, and toward states in the deep South. To serve our public school children and to strengthen the state’s future, we have a responsibility to improve not only the level of resources our children experience in their education, but also the way in which these resources are distributed across the state. Those children who need more ─ special needs children, poor children, and English language learners ─ should generate greater resources in the state funding formula.

In the absence of these changes over the next few years, Michigan risks the acceleration of a trend that has taken place over a period of years: the migration of its families and college graduates to other states. Our work begins by asking the right questions in our policy debates.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

6 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Gary G. Naeyaert

    It’s refreshing that Dr. Rice admits the fact that “total dollars per student have increased” under Governor Snyder. Does it really matter if paying the bill for rising teacher retirements costs comes “off the top” of the School Aid Fund, from the districts themselves out of their foundation allowance, or some kind of combo platter (which is the case today)? Is Dr. Rice advocating we should reduce teacher retirement benefits in order to put these dollars “in the classroom”?

    1. David Britten

      I know that many like to lump in the MSPERS payments as actual funding for K-12 public education, but this is a purposeful effort to mislead the public by not helping them understand the facts:

      1. The retirement system was created solely by the state, is administered by the state, and has been negatively impacted by the policy changes made at the state level by our legislators (charters, forced privatizing, and early retirement incentive of 2010).

      2. Putting funding into the MSPERS system to correct it’s mistakes, the state has had to reduce the net funding available for classroom instruction and students.

      3. Using school aid funds to support non-K-12 education and shift funding to businesses reduced the amount of money available to both help fix the retirement problem and provide more equitable classroom funding that keeps up with the rising rate of inflation.

      1. Rebecca

        David, very well said. Thank you

  2. R.L.

    Why not make it necessary for publicly funded charter schools live by all the same rules as other public schools. Most note worthy the mspers retirement system. The public is totally unaware for the most part that employees in the public schools are contributing about ten % of their pay into retirement and the schools about 25%. The charter schools in general pay less than the public schools in wages. What caliber of people do you hope to attract in the profession of education at around 32,000 to 35000 a year? Englers 6% sales tax and proposal A were supposed to level the playing field. What happened? R.L.

  3. Charles Richards

    Dr. Rice is being disingenuous. Within broad limits, there is little or no correlation between level of resources and educational results. Over a period of fifty years expenditures on K-12 education in this country were doubled in real terms, with no significant improvement in results.

    He is correct about the state’s failure to make adequate, timely contributions to MPSERS, but what’s done is done. Does he suggest that we don’t make makeup contributions? Or that pensions are not a legitimate part of the cost of education? I don’t recall a loud outcry from the education establishment when the state failed to make those payments. There was an excellent (though depressing) relevant story on Morning Edition about New Jersey’s pension dilemma. It seems the good citizens of New Jersey want public employees to have excellent pensions, but are reluctant to pay for them. They have postulated the existence of a state government responsibility to generate sufficient economic growth to pay their pension bill.

    Oscar Wilde had a gift for witty sayings, but not necessarily for wisdom. The wise man is a good judge of how much something is worth in comparison to alternatives. Dr. Rice, being an educator, can see no limit to how much we should invest in education.

  4. Duane

    Maybe the better question is how do the student learn rather than how the moneys are collected or distributed.

    Maybe the better question is what are we getting for all that money then how more of other people’s money cna be collected and spent.

    Maybe the better question is what is the value the money is providing rather than simply whining about wanting more and more money.

    I can understand how Superintendent Rice sees charter schools in such a bad light since he is focused on the money to his district. It is disppointing he can’t see beyond his district to see the value a charter school in the Portage district is providing to the students. It is like the carpenter and the hammer, when your only tool is the hammer you want to solve all problems with the hammer. Superintendent Rice’s only tool is money so he appears to see money as the way to solve all problems. That may cause him to miss that if people felt they were getting added value for their money they would be willing to spend more of it on education.

    “The Real Question: Are children better served by their funding now than in 2010?” Maybe the better question is; Are the children better served by by those spending the money? “They are not.”

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