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Asking the questions that impact students

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.

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