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Education policy makes schools hard to fund

Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal of an approximate 3 percent increase to K-12 funding spurred a debate over whether he has increased or slashed education spending during his time in office. Either way, there are pressing policy issues behind education spending, one being the funding of the Michigan Public Employees Retirement System, or MPSERS, its pension plan.

The governor points out that by committing state dollars to support MPSERS he is allowing school districts more options in how they can meet budgetary commitments. Yet at the same time, there doesn't seem to be enough talk about how the pension program has been undercut.

The expansion of charter schools and Education Achievement Authority (EAA) schools in the state can be debated on the merits of what is best for students. But most charter schools and EAA schools do not pay into MPSERS.

As these have expanded across the state, thousands of employees are being paid with public money, but no longer supporting its pension system. This makes the pension fund increasingly harder to fund. It is no wonder the state needs to commit so much to MPSERS, preventing new state dollars from getting into the classrooms.

At the same time, public school districts have implemented cost-saving measures such as offering retirement incentives to teachers, which causes a larger draw on the system. In fact, a recent study by Munetrix shows many districts heading toward financial ruin when they had been on a solid foundation just a few years earlier.

If Snyder has increased school funding, then it doesn't seem like school districts are any better off. With the increasing pension costs, one would think they would take any measure possible to alleviate the weight of the system.

One such measure could be to enroll more charter schools into MPSERS, which would put millions of dollars into the system and free up more money for the classroom. Placing charter schools into the pension system would not solve the budget issue, but it would be one policy step that would not undercut the whole funding.

At the same time, many schools are facing declining enrollment, in part due to schools of choice. Districts are having a hard time cutting at the rate they may be losing students. Money follows the students. If a state is going to allow this kind of fluidity, then it has to recognize that the traditional funding system will be destabilized. Somehow the state needs to find a way of funding schools that accounts for such drastic changes to education.

It seems, though, money is only committed because of the fear of school districts collapsing all around the state. The latest proposal includes a specific fund for distressed districts, which proves an anticipation by the governor that under this budgetary policy schools are expected to fail. It is as though the budget has been designed so schools have to beg for money through incentive dollars just to stay afloat.

Snyder's latest proposal allows schools to receive more money if they implement "best practices." Again the educational merits of these practices could be debated, but policy and funding are interwoven.

The real issue is how the policy and budget work together. The question isn't if the governor has cut or raised funding, but how is the money being spent? Is the budget being spent simply because of bad policy or is money going into the classrooms?

Based on per-pupil allowance, more money is not going into classrooms since Snyder has been in office, and school districts like Inkster and Buena Vista have shut down due to funding issues. There is an enormous instability in where Michigan schools are headed in the near future, a destabilization that makes it hard for politicians to account fact from fiction.

If anything is clear, schools are under more stress than ever. It would be ill-advised to keep such long-term stress on a system that is entrusted with so much of the precious future. Snyder's proposal is far from a funding solution, because of overall failed education policy.

Paul Ruth is a writer and teacher who lives in Macomb Township.

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