Campaigning for governor in 2010 as Michigan was clawing its way back from the abyss of the Great Recession, Rick Snyder created a huge sense of urgency for business tax reform as a way to revive the state’s failing economy.
Just 143 days into Snyder’s tenure as governor, longtime Lansing observer Peter Luke wrote the following for Bridge:
Gov. Rick Snyder signed the biggest tax overhaul in Michigan in 17 years that finances the elimination of the Michigan business tax with a bundle of changes to the personal income tax.
Overall, it amounts to a $220 million net cut in tax revenues to state coffers, but for Michigan businesses, including some 100,000 that no longer will have to pay the repealed Michigan Business Tax, it’s a $1.65 billion cut.
...“Something fundamentally had to happen to make us a great state again,” Snyder said before signing House Bill 4361 into law as Republican lawmakers looked on.
Snyder did so after adopting the Business Leaders For Michigan mantra that it was essential we take bold and decisive action to make Michigan a top-10 economic powerhouse once again.
Today the governor, along with state Superintendent Brian Whiston and education advocacy group The Education Trust-Midwest, all have their own plans to make Michigan a top-10 state in education. The governor has empaneled a bipartisan 21st Century Commission on Education to study the issue and make recommendations.
Does anybody really believe the governor’s proposal for education will reflect the same sense of urgency with which he addressed the Michigan Business Tax? I suspect not.
There are myriad reasons for the education reform malaise, even as Michigan continues to plummet in student performance among the states, much as its per-capita income ranking fell from 1994 through 2014.
One reason may be that few see the crisis. Parents are still likely to grade their school as an A or a B even as they grade the institution of public education as a C or a D.
A better reason may be the lack of consensus on a cure. Voters and legislators are almost always in alignment on fiscal crises but there is often wide disparity on policy solutions. The education crisis that prompted the Legislature to act in concert with voter concerns, as it did for Snyder in 2011, was the property tax revolt of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That resulted in Proposal A, a dramatic redistribution of tax burden from property taxes to sales taxes to finance public education.
There is no such policy consensus for improving academic performance, as evidenced by the recent debate over the Detroit Public Schools. While the system’s debt riveted the attention of Snyder and legislators, it was the difference of opinion over a policy decision -- a proposed oversight body to govern charter school openings and placement -- that stalled the bailout until community leaders abandoned their hopes of a coordinating commission for fear of a total loss through bankruptcy.
Absent agreement on crisis or cure, I’ve something of a counterintuitive recommendation for reform. Follow the lead of Congress. Restore local control. Faced with a failed national policy demanding 100 percent student proficiency in 2014, and with the U.S. Education Department issuing waivers to virtually every state in the union, Congress in December 2015 punted the problem back to the states with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Michigan and all other states are now struggling to rewrite their own assessment and accountability plans. The vision of a showdown between the Legislature and the state Board of Education already looms as those who don’t want to retreat on the No Child Left Behind standards-based accountability movement are lining up against the school community’s preferred model of growth measurement, as opposed to high-stakes testing.
We also have a wide division between the Legislature and the school community on funding. Educators believe we’ve too little; legislators believe we certainly have enough, despite a recent finance study indicating most schools should receive about $1,200 more per pupil and those students at greatest risk, or those who are English-language learners, should receive 30 to 40 percent more.
Why shouldn’t our new state accountability plan mirror the third-grade reading bill the Legislature recently sent to the governor? It places a great deal of focus on early literacy, sets a standard to be met by educators, and recommends strategies for improvement and discussion between parents and teachers. This is far better policy than that proposed in the original draft, which had Lansing telling parents, third-grade teachers and elementary principals whom to pass on to fourth grade and whom to hold back.
State government should set standards and allow local boards of education, parents and the business community that elects them to determine how to meet those standards. The consequences of failure should be clear, and they should be enforced.
So, too, should our state return to local communities the opportunity to increase their contribution to school operating budgets. Giving individual communities the opportunity to adequately fund their schools by contributing more from local taxpayers needn’t negate equity or return Michigan to the vast differences in funding before Proposal A. Maintaining equity could be managed through an equalization factor which would not allow a gap any greater between high- and low-funded districts than, say, 25 percent.
If there’s a crisis worthy of dramatic response, it’s more likely to come from the parents of children in their neighborhood schools than it is from legislators and lobbyists.
This commentary originally appeared in School News Network, a site dedicated to news of the Kent Intermediate School district.