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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/05/long-term-fixes-to-michigan-school-funding-unlikely-this-year/

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Michigan's troubled schools:

Long-term fixes to Michigan school funding unlikely this year

8th grader Emma Clark, 14, ponders a problem during a science class at the DeWitt Junior High School in DeWitt, Michigan. Students at DeWitt commonly use technology in classroom, sometimes working on their personal devices, other times using school provided laptops.  Schools in smaller communities like DeWitt struggle with funding and can't always afford the technology deemed essential in today's world. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

8th grader Emma Clark, 14, ponders a problem during a science class at the DeWitt Junior High School. Students at DeWitt commonly use technology in classroom, sometimes working on their personal devices. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

At DeWitt Junior High, it’s not uncommon to see kids wearing trendy North Face jackets and the coolest gym shoes as they tromp around campus, nestled in this bedroom community just north of Lansing’s vaulted halls of power. They come from middle-income families for the most part.

So when the school district last fall promoted BYOD – bring your own device – eighth-grader Rheanna Wey arrived with an iPad, which she’d paid for with babysitting money two years ago. The iPad isn’t new, but it’s faster than the district’s desktops, half of which are seven years old.

Indeed, most DeWitt families can afford speedy, useful technology – the tablets, laptops and smart phones that have become essential in educational settings. Good thing, because the school district cannot, even though the median income in DeWitt is $75,848.

“Parents will ask why we don’t have the technology when we live in a middle-class community. They don’t understand how we can be one of the lowest-funded districts in the state,” said John Deiter, superintendent of DeWitt Public Schools.

DeWitt gets the minimum amount of school aid from the state ($7,026 per pupil) and receives little federal money for low-income students. While Michigan communities can pass millages for local school construction and technology, DeWitt lacks enough people or businesses to ante up big bucks. And the district’s tight budget leaves little for academic extras, such as more support for students struggling with math.

In Deiter’s view, Michigan’s 20-year-old school funding law, known as Proposal A, is neither equitable nor fair to DeWitt’s children. DeWitt ranked 775 of 812 districts and charter schools in Michigan in total funding per pupil last school year, Michigan Department of Education data show.

Many other small to middling, and middle-income, districts face a similar dilemma: too affluent to receive much funding for low-income students, not wealthy enough to be exempt from the local funding limitations of Proposal A.

Deiter said at the very least he’d like to see Lansing create a state school construction fund, like other some states have, that would give communities more money to build and equip facilities.

“Our retirement costs are up by a million since 2007,” he said. “Add inflation, we’re getting the same per pupil. I would challenge anyone to come in and find fault with how we’re spending money in DeWitt. I believe we’re very fiscally responsible. I wouldn’t say we’re in a crisis. We’re at a plateau. Without some relief, I don’t know how we’re going to balance the budget. I don’t know what else we can cut.”

School funding fix elusive

State legislators on both sides of the aisle expect education funding to be a major discussion in this fall’s election season. Partisans may quarrel about how to fairly fund schools, but on two issues they do agree:

A short-term budget deal amounts to “kicking the can down the road” on reforming the school funding formula in Michigan.

A longer-term funding solution is needed, but remains politically difficult in an election year.

Teacher Kirk Moundros explains algebra to his 8th graders who often use personal tablets and smart phones to work on projects during his class at DeWitt Junior High School. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

Teacher Kirk Moundros explains algebra to his 8th graders who often use personal tablets and smart phones to work on projects during his class at DeWitt Junior High School. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

So as candidates for governor debate whether more or less money has gone toward education during Gov. Rick Snyder’s first term, and as Michigan continues to earn mediocre grades on national studies of education spending and performance, we’re likely to see more can kicking this fall.

Not only are long-term solutions unlikely, there is not even legislative support to fund a study of how much should be spend for Michigan students to compete with those in higher-performing states.

Snyder’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year recommends $11.7 billion for K-12 schools, an increase of $322 million over the current year (along with cuts to some specific programs). Most of the new money will help districts pay down pension debts, with the remainder adding anywhere from $83 to $111 to the per-student payments school districts receive from the state.

Two competing proposals ask the legislature to give more money to local districts to spend as they see fit – they differ mostly in degree. The proposals look alike, but are rooted in very different ideology.

Option one: Cut some, help all

Many education groups across the state banned together in February to announce an alternative to Snyder’s education budget – one they call “Classrooms and Kids.” Their idea calls for cutting more than $200 million in so-called categorical funding that is earmarked for special initiatives, such as to help online schools and other programs. Some cuts the group proposes: $80 million that goes to schools that meet “best practices” standards; $10 million for at-risk students; $2 million for robotics and $22 million for retirement costs. Under “Classrooms and kids,” that money would be spread instead among all public schools.

DeWitt Junior High 8th graders use a personal smartphone to work on a project in an algebra class. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

DeWitt Junior High 8th graders use a personal smartphone to work on a project in an algebra class. (Bridge photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

Under this approach, schools across Michigan would get $250 to $291 more per pupil when added to the governor’s proposed increases, the group says.

It is unclear whether allowing this money to be spread more evenly among all schools would leave less money for schools that are heavily dependent on this special funding.

“Classrooms and Kids” is supported by the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group of about 85 school districts in Southeast Michigan; 12 intermediate districts; the Michigan Association of School Administrators as well as the Michigan Association of School Boards and Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

“This is a step in the right direction. It wouldn’t surprise me if others say it’s not enough,” said Robert Livernois, superintendent of Warren Consolidated Schools and president of the Tri-County Alliance. “We are working hard everyday to make sure we’re funding our classrooms properly and that’s the greatest challenge.”

Option two: Cut almost all categoricals

Meanwhile, charter school advocates want the solution to school funding to include the state eliminating a greater amount of categorical spending.

The Great Lakes Education Project is lobbying for categorical funds to be cut by $1.4 billion – more than five times what education groups are suggesting – so that about 90% of all state investment in K-12 would be spread equally among the schools. Under the GLEP plan, schools across Michigan would get a minimum of more than $8,200 per student (not including the 50-plus highest funded, “hold harmless” districts). That amounts to increases ranging from $201 to $1,224 per-pupil.

GLEP’s proposal would almost certainly benefit charter schools. Although charter schools do not participate in the pension fund, this proposal would allow charters to pocket a share of state funds previously earmarked to pay pension debts.

GLEP, a charter and school of choice advocacy group, has said it plans to donate between $500,000 and $1 million to political candidates that support its agenda.

A long-term fix to school funding will require tough legislative talks in Lansing, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group that supports deep cuts to categoricals and equal per-pupil funding across the state.

“What’s happening right now isn’t the solution. There’s no explanation except for history as to why there are differences between per pupil funding,” he said. A serious discussion must involve brave lawmakers willing to dissect how schools in their districts manage their money, Quisenberry added.

“If this is about getting more or less money and no talk about how it’s spent, the conversation will go the way these conversations have gone in the past – nowhere.”

DeWitt’s dilemma

In 2009, after several failed bond proposals, DeWitt voters approved a millage to support $10.4 million in school building improvements, including wireless access to the Internet. But the funds did not pay for electronic devices for DeWitt students.

The junior high school has mobile carts stocked with Netbook and Chromebook laptops that classes can share, along with about 90 desktops. But no smart boards, few projectors and no district-wide automated parent notification system for snow days like those used in other districts.

In February, Deiter, the superintendent, sat in a legislative conference room in Lansing and explained DeWitt’s issues to a senate appropriations subcommittee on school aid.

“I would challenge anyone to come in and find fault with how we’re spending money in DeWitt. Without some relief, I don’t know how we’re going to balance the budget. I don’t know what else we can cut.” – Supt. John Deiter, DeWitt Public Schools

With senators at one end of a massive table and the superintendent at the other, Deiter described how budget cuts were nudging up class sizes in his 3,000-student school system. DeWitt now shares a food services director with East Lansing schools, and a high school counselor and some reading specialists had to be cut to help balance the budget.

East Lansing – a district only 15 minutes away – gets a foundation grant of $8,049 per pupil from the state, while DeWitt receives $7,026 per pupil due to the way the Proposal A school funding law works.

Deiter said he was testifying because he knew that major funding decisions for Michigan students take place in Lansing. He was testifying because educators are being told to increase standardized test scores without increasing costs.

Meanwhile, Michigan ranks among the bottom tier of states in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests.

“A lot of studies say there’s no direct correlation between test scores and money,” Deiter said, but “when you’re constantly trying to do more with less, something’s got to give.”

He welcomes the small, one-year infusion of cash the governor is pushing for the fall. But he is doubtful a permanent fix is in the offing for the sake of 47 Michigan school districts in deficit and the remainder that have seen state per-pupil spending decrease by 6% since 2010-11. The political winds are not blowing in that direction.

DeWitt for years performed well on the state’s MEAP test, but last fall only 38% of DeWitt third-graders scored proficient on the MEAP math. “I’d like to do math intervention but I don’t have the money to hire staff,” Deiter said. “If this is the best Michigan can do, we’re well behind. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The true cost of education

Of the 200 Michigan school districts that are part of a group called the School Equity Caucus, some agree with proposals to redistribute the categorical funds earmarked for special programs, other districts do not.

“There is nothing that’s not politicized,” said Gerald Peregord, executive director of the caucus.

“We do things backwards in Michigan. We figure out how much money we’re going to spend and then say, ‘Educate the kids,’” said Peregord, who thinks Michigan should conduct an adequacy study to first determine how much it would cost to give students across the state an opportunity to receive a quality education. “I try to be an optimistic person, hoping that sooner or later our leaders will recognize we’re not talking about dollars, we’re talking about kids.”

For now, there is no political urgency to fix Proposal A.

“We’ve been talking about this for five, six years since 2007-08 when the economy went bad and showed Proposal A was not working the way it was supposed to,” Peregord said. “There’s talk, but no traction on Proposal A because it’s a big project.

School officials cope with tighter funding by skillfully cutting their way to balanced budgets. However, the number of financially distressed school districts is growing in Michigan, making it increasingly important for the state to find a more permanent solution.

“A majority (of schools in the Equity Caucus) are already looking over into the abyss or can see the cliff. They’re not in deficit yet, but if trends continue they will be,” Peregord said. “(Proposal A) is not working and soon it’s going to be proved to not work. But it’s going to be too late for some kids.”

No pressure to change

Former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow has a unique vantage point. He was one of the architects of the Proposal A school funding law in the 1990s and is now superintendent of St. Clair County’s intermediate school district.

It took 20 years, a dozen failed proposals and a school district going broke in Kalkaska (shutting its doors three months before the end of the school year) for lawmakers to change the school funding process in 1994. The legislature canceled all state school funding, forcing lawmakers and voters to create and approve Proposal A in 1994 to restructure education aid.

Proposal A did its job – cutting and capping property taxes while significantly narrowing the funding gap between low and higher-funded school districts.

Since 1994 when Prop A was approved, the gap between bottom and high funded districts has improved – from $2,300 per pupil then, to about $1,000 per pupil today.

While Prop A reduced the gap between poor and wealthier districts, it was never intended to deliver additional funds to districts that need more resources to educate their students. DeGrow also noted with 2-cents from the state sales tax going to schools, when the economy slows, less money is generated for schools.

“Proposal A works fine when the state has money. When the state doesn’t have money, schools have to tighten,” DeGrow said.

In DeGrow’s view, an overhaul of school funding also requires something that is lacking now, but was present in 1994: a groundswell of angry voters demanding change.

“Superintendents have done a good job holding the ship together,” DeGrow said. “Do parents notice things are worse? I don’t know. Outside urban areas the answer is probably, no.”

People move politicians. Politicians move money.

“I think to change things, the public has to be outraged,” DeGrow said. “I don’t see the public outraged yet.”

Chastity Pratt Dawsey spent more than a decade at the Detroit Free Press, and is a Detroit native. She can be reached at cpratt@bridgemi.com. See more stories by her here.

11 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Martha Toth

    One problem with eliminating categoricals in favor of per-pupil funding has been noted: that much of that money goes right back to MPSERS for traditional school districts, while most charter districts get to spend it on other things. Another problem has NOT been noted above: the excess costs of special education. The charter schools in my district have MUCH lower percentages of special education students — one-third or so of the district’s percentage. We are reimbursed for only about two-thirds of the actual costs of special education. That means that about $1,000 of every regular-education student’s funding is diverted to special education. As the neediest students are concentrated in the traditional districts, the drain increases. It is significant.

  2. Charles Richards

    Superintendent Deiter is absolutely correct when he says, “A lot of studies say there’s no direct correlation between test scores and money.” One of the New England states has redistributed substantial amounts of money to poorer districts for decades under a court order with very little to show for it. Some years ago, a federal judge ordered $2 billion spent in, I believe, Kansas City to create first class facilities for the inner city. It was a failure. Chastity Pratt Dawsey says, “Meanwhile, Michigan ranks among the bottom tier of states in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests.” She does not say where Michigan ranks in spending.

    “DeGrow also noted with 2-cents from the state sales tax going to schools, when the economy slows, less money is generated for schools.” and, ““Proposal A works fine when the state has money. When the state doesn’t have money, schools have to tighten,” DeGrow said.” Really? So, perhaps funding structure isn’t the problem. Perhaps the problem is inadequate disposable personal income, something best attacked by growing Michigan’s economy.

    “In DeGrow’s view, an overhaul of school funding also requires something that is lacking now, but was present in 1994: a groundswell of angry voters demanding change.” The change people were demanding was property tax relief.

    Mr. Peregrod says, “I try to be an optimistic person, hoping that sooner or later our leaders will recognize we’re not talking about dollars, we’re talking about kids.” I hate to disillusion him but unfortunately, we are talking about both. Unfortunately, it is our task to educate our children the best we can within the constraint of how much money we have to spend.

  3. Rogelio Landin

    There is a direct correlation between funding and results. The MI per pupil average is $10K. The national average is $13K. Our average is 25% less than the national. Our minimum ($7K) is approximately 50% of the national average. Quick math puts MI at the top of the bottom third or 33% to as low as 25% of the national range in funding. “Adequate” is the relative term being used; you decide. Adequate suggests average. That puts us about $3K short. The per pupil allocation increases proposed by either plan being discussed would be insignificant. Education is better served shifted from a “spend” to “invest” culture. We need to invest in all of our children, some more than others. Divestiture in categorical funding is neither a remedy or solution.

  4. Brendan Walsh

    Disclaimer! Be forewarned. I am going to talk about teacher salaries, an exercise that is not synonymous with teacher bashing, calling teachers greedy, and anything along those lines.

    DeWitt’s financial profile, using Michigan Bulletin 1014, is in many ways like the state’s on the whole. DeWitt ranks 776th (out of 813) in revenue per pupil ($7,847 compared to state average of $8,965; so DeWitt is 12.5% lower than the state average). Their total expenditure per pupil is $7,946, ranking them 735th. In short, they generally spend, in total, proportionally to their revenue per pupil. Also, their ratio of pupils to teacher is 23, the same as the state average.

    But despite having revenue 12.5% lower and having the same ratio of pupils to teachers, DeWitt pays their teachers on average $63,693 (128th in the state) each, about 2% above the state average of $62,530. Meanwhile the national average, according to NEA reports, is $58,315. Michigan is paying teacher’s on average 7% above the national average.

    Back to DeWitt. If they paid their teachers on average in proportion to their revenue per pupil (12.5% lower), they’d have an additional $1 million, or $342 per pupil on things like technology devices.

    I’m not saying they should cut teacher pay or (see disclaimer). I’m just saying this is a conscious choice they have made to pay their teachers proportionally more than their revenue would otherwise dictate. If DeWitt, or the state on the whole, wants to consciously decide to spend more for teachers, that’s great and fine and all, but then something else (like iPads and other tech, as an example) will have to give. (Oh by the way, higher salaries leads directly to higher pension costs and is generally leading Michigan to have higher ratios of students to teachers).

    Proportions matters and investment of all kind needs to be thought out in relation to revenue.

    1. ***

      Maybe they have more teachers that have been on the job longer than the average district in Michigan and that could count for the higher salaries. That information may or may not be available to research.

    2. Clarice

      Lots of truth to those statements. If the State gives more money, the unions will get out their calculators and say that salaries and benefits should rise, and ergo, pensions will rise. The money won’t go to the kids or the classrooms.

  5. ***

    DeWitt is being called a middle class community by the median income stats but in reality it is more of an upper class community (some of the newer homes in the fancy subdivisions are rather impressive) and more like Okemos). I wonder if the desire to pay more than average salaries to teachers has anything to do with meeting community expectations of paying more for who they think are better teachers. Just a guess anyway.

  6. Lisa Alross

    Thank you Brenda Walsh for your intellectual honesty. I wholeheartedly agree with you. It is where districts decide to spend their money. The anology of a family and it’s monthly budget never seems to apply to schools. Manydistricts are opting to spend too much of their budget on increased salary and benefits (much of which has little teacher contribution). Don’t even get me started with pensions.

    The inequity between government employees (state included) and the common man is way out of proportion. It is time that state and yes, federal employees begin paying for their own retirement like the rest of the common people. Maybe it is time to get the unions out of the public school, as they are destroying it. Another reason why Charter schools are providing superior education to our kids as well as being able to do it within budget.

    1. Becky

      Have you actually looked at the performance data for Public School Academies (charter schools)? Nearly 75% are in the bottom 25% of all districts and a significant number (a higher percentage than traditional schools) are in the bottom 5% of all schools!

  7. Connie Glave

    The discussion does not deal with the biggest factor, which is poverty. Poverty that results from the loss of jobs. Poverty that results from cuts to social services. Good jobs will mean more people paying the taxes that support our schools and communities. An increase in the income tax, so those who make the money by using the public infrastructure of schools, roads, bridges, and a court system to enforce contracts, help support the system that allows them to make that money.

  8. carol

    We are TAXED to death and have nothing to show for it. Instead of asking for more money make those we already pay our taxes to DO the RIGHT thing.

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