Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

In a March 26 column for Bridge, Rep. Tim Kelly indicated he supports “the notion that we have lost our focus and attention on student achievement and performance while chasing the latest educational fad and worrying about charter schools, choice, and what others may be receiving in their foundation.”

I take issue with this notion. As the mother of two school-age children and vice president of a public school board, I see day after day that schools are focused on performance and achievement as never before. Data is driving our instruction so we stretch students at the top, boost students at the bottom and fill in the gaps for the ones in the middle. Local school districts all over the state are using data to understand what kids are learning -- and what they aren’t.

Instruction has improved as a result, and we know how to keep improving. The problem is not a lack of focus. Kelly’s accusation of poor focus inappropriately shifts the blame to schools. The problem isn’t focus; it is the dilution of our educational resources.

It is easy to make suggestions that we aren’t getting our money’s worth for our investment in education. As Rep. Kelly wrote, we spend billions on education, yet we have stagnant test scores. But that’s not the story in its entirety. We need to add some history.

While the amount spent per pupil has inched upward of late, the actual amount going into classrooms is down more than $800 from 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation. After retirement contributions, $5,876 of the foundation allowance went to instruction and operations in 2005. By 2015, it was $5,030. The increases all go to paying down the school employee retirement obligations. The increases were needed to make up for a devastating recession, the drop in the number of active teachers, and underfunding of the system. This underfunding began in the Engler years and continued until three years ago. In other words, our education dollars are catching up on a mortgage we fell behind on several years ago.

We also have fewer school-age children. From 2003-2014, the number of students dropped 11 percent, or about 200,000 kids. Nearly every school district in the state is feeling the squeeze of that population drop and we are seeing it through annual budget cuts – even in very prosperous areas of the state. This happens because our funding is based on our number of students. Because population drops are often gradual, seeing the areas to cut takes time.

These two factors alone place great stress on our school funding. Yet instead of reducing our educational inventory, state policy actually increased in. It did this in 2012 when it lifted the cap on charter schools. So amid overall declining enrollment, traditional K-12 districts are seeing even more pressure from rising charter enrollment, which has now climbed to 10 percent of our student population. So in a time when we should have seen the natural consolidation of capacity, we saw a thinning of it.

For the last several years, Lansing has disregarded the intent of voters when they approved Proposal A to use the sales tax for schools. During the recession, it was warranted to keep the state from going under. Now the recession is over, and the state continues to tap into it and expand the uses to early childhood education and community colleges.

I applaud Kelly’s desire to remove the categoricals of best-practices and performance funding. They are silly carrots that do nothing to boost achievement. And I applaud his desire to finally fund all districts equally. But to suggest that educators are focusing on trivia is off-base.

Charters pose a very real problem by stressing an already overburdened School Aid Fund. Educators are not chasing fads. They are working hard to implement what has been proven by research and data to work for kids.

To suggest that educators are unfocused is an obfuscation of the real issue, and, well, a blurry understanding of the financial dynamics. To suggest that a streamlined state budget will improve that focus is simply out of touch with what’s happening in public schools and school finance.

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Fri, 04/03/2015 - 4:39pm
Well said, Anne. It is so important to know the facts and the realities.
John S Porter
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 8:36am
This statement, "the state continues to tap into it and expand the uses to early childhood education and community colleges" sounds like the State is doing something wrong. Suppose that early childhood and community college programs give more bang for the buck? In that situation wouldn't the legacy K-12 system better give way a little bit to early childhood and community college systems?
Darryle Buchanan
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 9:29am
Community colleges have the ability to raise tuition, and receive county funding; public schools cannot, do not. Putting money into early education is a good idea as it will improve educational outcomes in the future. But after all of the cuts and lack of focus from Lansing, that investment should be a general fund expenditure.
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 7:16pm
Ms. Hamming, What do you want? Is it more money, less attention on the schools, testing ended? Do you have any expectations of students?
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 10:30pm
Well done Ms.Hamming! Although public schools can't undo all of society's woes, for a growing percentage of our students, the seven hours they spend in our schools are the only seven hours of sanity they experience all day. Proper funding would go a long way towards providing all students with the support they need to be successful.
Jo Ann Beckfield
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 10:55pm
Right on target, Ms. Hamming. Thank you especially for giving the facts about the history of the deficit in retirement funding and for pointing out how charter schools have been funded at the expense of the needs of students who attend traditional public schools. Mr. Buchanan, I appreciate your backing for more early childhood education and your proposal that it should not be funded by cutting into K-12 funding.
Bill Fullmer
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 8:55am
I agree. A very thoughtful, insiders perspective. Fads tend to stem from legistation, or well intended superintendents, but seldom do more than frustrate teachers and students. Good teachers know how to reach kids. Give them needed resources and get out of the way.
Brian Kramer
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 11:24am
So the conclusion the author reaches is that we need fewer options for parents (fewer charter schools) so that we can pump all those resources (money) back into the local school districts? Do I have that right? What's sad about this commentary is that Anne totally disregards what's best for students. What if the best choice for a student is a charter school? In Anne's world, that's too bad. She has decided we have enough educational options in our state, so we need to close up the charters and send all the students back to their government-assigned schools. Anne gets to decide where kids go to school - not parents.
John Q. Public
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 11:40pm
Gee, what if "what's best" for 500 students is to the detriment of 10,000 others? Should we just go ahead and fund it anyway? That's what we do with charter schools. Schools of choice provide the parents the option to go elsewhere without creating 200+ single-building school districts. Michigan pushes other government bodies to consolidate, while encouraging an explosion in the number of school districts.
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 11:52am
To differ from the usual echo chamber above, I'd like to know why teacher retirement costs shouldn't be considered part of the cost structure of schools? And therefore shouldn't be part of state stipend. Couldn't you say the same for teacher's health insurance? Sounds like the state's taxpayers are being set up for another big bailout. Second question as to your point of dropping enrollment through both enrollment and charters, creating a strain on schools, isn't that just reason to pursue more restructuring and consolidations? By your numbers ... in the area of 20%? Seems Michigan has an inordinate number of school districts with the associated over headeven before this decline. Why aren't you pushing for this solution?
Tony Baker
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 7:26pm
Thanks Anne for your entry into this discussion. You state succinctly that school districts and educators are creating effective and innovative instructional solutions to the challenges facing public education - in the context of a dilution of resources. Both of these statements are true despite the debate generated from the column. School districts are receiving a diluted set of resources in the midst of increasing challenges. The school aid fund is being used for other than its originally intended purposes. Pitting K-12 against early childhood and community colleges does not diffuse the responsibility of the K-12 systems. All need to be adequately funded. Charter schools, despite their value, do dilute the resources available to traditional school districts. It also differs responsibility to the traditional school system for families who can not or choose not to exercise this choice. Regardless of one's views on charter schools, an increase in charter schools, dilutes the resources to traditional public schools. Traditional public schools have consolidated services dramatically over the past ten years. These systems are far more efficient today. Retirement costs are increasing dramatically, as the author suggests. Retirement coasts are not negotiated by school districts. They are required by the state for traditional public schools, but not for charter schools. This also dramatically dilutes the resources. What is most important about Ms. Hamming's article is that we all enter into the discussion and listen to all of the issues honestly. We must grapple together with the work that we all need to do to guarantee all children in the state receive a quality education. This is the work of the people of the state and our local communities. Tony Baker GRPS School Board The
Jan of MI
Tue, 04/07/2015 - 10:44am
Thank you, Ms. Hamming. Also Thank you, Tony Baker for pointing out that Charter School Teachers are not part of the retirement system causing a decrease in $$ going into the retirement system.