Opinion | Calm down, Michigan, the sky isn’t falling, nor is school funding

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Mich.

A recent Bridge Magazine column by state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, sought to dispel criticisms about a panic-inducing report on Michigan school funding, but instead, it both brushed over important history and ignored the latest news.

In late January, a group of Michigan State University researchers led by David Arsen released a report that inspired devastating headlines around the state. People predisposed to believe a tale of funding woes found something to latch onto. But evidence strongly undercuts the drastic claims.

Counterpoint: Michigan schools need a fairer funding model for all students

Sen. Polehanki repeated one of the study's most sensational findings: Michigan had the lowest K-12 funding increase of any state from 1995 to 2015. The finding ignores our state's declining number of students as a significant factor, much like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did in the inaccurate claim she delivered during her State of the State address.

The senator critiqued the Mackinac Center's use of the Consumer Price Index to compare funding changes over time. The MSU researchers, by contrast, selected a government price deflator that paints a uniquely dire picture. The deflator assumes that to keep pace, a government agency must spend roughly two dollars today for every one dollar spent in 1995. Anything else represents a cut.

But this assumption wildly overlooks what was happening economically to the taxpayers who fund the system. From 1995 to 2017, the average cost of living for Michigan residents grew by 54 percent, and the dollars in the state's median household income similarly increased by 58 percent. Compared to these changes, the 80 percent rise in per-pupil dollars was healthy and significant.

Opinion: Don’t believe the hype – Michigan school funding is down, not up

Michigan's painful Lost Decade of a deep recession covered roughly half of that time period. From 2000 to 2010, average household earnings barely inched forward, falling behind rises in the cost of living. One result has been an average teacher salary that exceeds that of the typical income-earner in the state, and at a ratio higher than is true of any other state.

Sen. Polehanki declared that a "massive disinvestment" in public schools started in 2010, and declared that state education funds are "diminishing." But a closer look at the numbers challenges these statements.

Dollars collected by the state treasury and doled out through the School Aid Fund provide most of the revenues received by a typical Michigan school. Yet the short-term funding drop that occurred in the early 2010s primarily resulted from two factors not driven by Lansing lawmakers. First, local property values and, consequently, tax revenues, took a hit. Second, federal funding slowed down quickly after the Obama administration's extra stimulus boosts.

Getting Michigan's recent troubled economic history correct also puts more recent school funding news into context. Michigan rebounded quickly to rank in the middle of states for per-pupil funding growth from 2010 to 2015. That's as far as the MSU report could count for purposes of cross-state comparisons. But we now have three additional years of data on the dollars collected and spent by Michigan schools to better observe trends within our own state."

Even using the MSU deflator to make the adjustment, Michigan schools took in more dollars in 2018 than they did five years earlier. (That remains true even without factoring in a 4 percent drop in student enrollment.) Increased state funding and rebounding local property taxes are responsible for the extra money. Today's steadily rising revenues add up to more than $14,000 per pupil. And yes, if you look at the standard measure of inflation in Michigan, that amount represents, not a history of disinvestment, but an all-time high.

A tale of education funding doom and gloom may suit some political agendas. But a careful look at the numbers, both from the recent past and from current trends, offers a more nuanced and even contrary perspective.

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Wed, 03/20/2019 - 12:46pm

I understand your commitment to open journalism, but I truly wish you wouldn't publish the Mackinac Center's dreck. Stop giving a veneer of legitimacy to this Koch-backed front for the interests of the 0.1%

Steven Martin
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 2:57pm

Bones is 100% correct. The Mackinac
Center is hardly an objective source of information and has a history of attacks on public education.

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 5:01pm

One thing is certain Bones and Steven Martin are ignorant. Mackinac Center for Public Policy gives the facts, plain and simple. Shame that those two are in denial.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:16pm

Goblins like DeGrow are paid to make numbers dance. Why would I, a non-millionaire, trust the spin of a think tank that was founded and funded by libertarian billionaires who have bought the government so that they could dismantle it for their own benefit? These ghouls have a vested class interest that very clearly serves the oligarchy, and should be distrusted on that basis alone. For that very same reason I don't trust CATO or CAP; the interests of the people who write their paychecks are in direct opposition to my interests as a working class stiff

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:09pm

Ok ... so where is the error in the things being claimed other than your spew about the Kocks, Cato CAP.... You claim to be a highly educated person, way more than Mr DeGrow, put up you figures, show us his mistakes!

Kevin Grand
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 5:33pm

But, is it factually incorrect?

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 9:55am

To help me properly evaluate this article, will you point out the incorrect information presented?

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 9:15am

Now we hear crickets. Attack the person, not the data presented.

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 5:56pm

Yes. The Mackinac Center is the Fox News of Michigan. The 'institute' portion is a joke. Another brain dead Koch 'think tank' (thinking is tanked).

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 6:54am

Are you also to lacking facts to refute the argument?

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 6:52am

Bones, (and the rest of Bridge commentors) for an intelligent person, why do you have trouble addressing the content of the argument of the rather than ad hominem attacks. Pretty pathetic.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:19pm

It's simple class interests. The people who pay DeGrow do not care about the 99.9%; we should all be extremely skeptical of any analysis they provide, because it will he made in support of goals that are antithetical to the majority of Michigan's population

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:22pm

That's it? All you have??? You can't even address his very specific claims so you attack him with snotty little comments? For a brief moment I expected better from you .

Rob D
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 5:18pm

Specifics. In 2010 there was a change in the pass through of pension fund funding. That money was paid with the School Aid Fund allotment to schools, but that amount was then paid into the pension fund. It is the BS claim the Snyder made in 2014 that he did not cut education funding. Because that pension amount was being included in the post 2010 numbers, it appeared as if funding went up, when in fact there was a precipitous drop. It was not until 2017 that the real dollar amount reached the pre-2010 number, not accounting for inflation, whichever marker of inflation one uses. Mr. DeGrow fails to include this fact in his analysis.

Mitchell Robinson
Thu, 03/21/2019 - 10:25am

Ben DeGrow is the Devin Nunes of Kellyanne Conways. He doesn't deserve a platform in Bridge.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 3:52pm

"Ben DeGrow is the Devin Nunes of Kellyanne Conways." Hmmm? Probably wouldn't have made any sense anyway.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 03/21/2019 - 6:09pm

So when you cannot refute an argument, resort to personal attacks.

Got it.

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 12:51pm

Also, who picked that image of DeGraw to run with this piece? I need a name so I can buy them a beer

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 2:08pm

All you need to do is look at the outcomes of the education system over the last 20 years and understand who funds the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to know why Mr. DeGrow has written the article as he does.

Rich billionaires only have one world view and are so far out of touch with reality their thoughts are irrelevant to this conversation about MI education.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 10:22am

Have you looked at the performance of students in the school district where the Mackinac Center resides over the last 20 years or more or less? Do you think those results are good, acceptable, or disappointing?
Do you think their results are due to Michigan's 'education system' or is it due to the students' efforts? Since there are other districts around Michigan having better results, what would you attribute their success to, students or 'education system'?

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 11:16am

I hate to clue you Bernadette but schools have been a concern since the 1970's. Remember "A Nation at Risk"? That was the Reagan administration sounding the alarm. I know it doesn't work with your dogma, that schools went to crap only since Snyder but there it is.

Are you referring to all Rich billionaires as opposed to the poor billionaires being in touch , I'm confused. Also are you referring to only the rich billionaires you disagree with as opposed to the un-rich billionaires you do agree with? I'd be happy to be either!

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:21pm

There is no such thing as a billionaire who cares about the working class. Full stop

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 10:18am

Have you ever heard of the Gates and their efforts to improve the plight of those working around the world both setting up organizations and staffing to address the conditions, the billions they donate, and even the recruiting of other billionaire to donate billions?
I wonder if you have an open mind to actually addressing Michigan problems/issues when you are so quick to use stereotyping when trying to express your point of view.
I have found time and again when people fall back to stereotypes they have a closed mind. I experienced this at a community chartable organization where we had been and were working to address a local need and the 2016 election was mentioned, and a feeling, much like yours, was mention about who was their to help [without knowing who was at the table they had stereotype people there]. Much like you, they saw people through their politics not through the actions of those people they were stereotyping. Nobody stopped working, nobody left, but some we disappointed in such unjustified biases.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 2:20pm

I missed the income question or test when ever I entered any of the DeVos, VanAndel or Meijer facilities. I must look closer next time. Only rich people on the Meijer trail!

James Kerby
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 2:24pm

I am a trustee for Sparta Area Schools. Mr DeGrow is correct that per pupil funding for Michigan's public schools has increased in the past 3 years. He appears to be ignoring the findings of former Gov. Snyder's commission on school funding of what adequate school funding levels need to be to reach the consensus achievement goals set by our State Board of Education and the current valuation of the dollar as is noted in the cited MSU study report. And the fact that the tax burden in Michigan as a per cent of state GDP is lower than in the 1970's. I would also ask Mr DeGrow to point to how to realize the $14,000 per pupil funding he cites for my school district. If this were accurate, the citizens of our school district would be dancing in the streets.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 3:45pm

But of course what amount should be spent, (another controversial subject which I'm sure you'd differ), wasn't any thing close to the subject of the piece here, was it?

Kathy Boyer
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 2:46pm

One factor that was controlled by the state legislators and was not mentioned by Mr. DeGrow is the fact that a large number of charter schools were allowed to form, drawing funds away from local districts. These schools are also not given the same scrutiny as are public schools.

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 5:58pm

'These schools are also not given the same scrutiny as are public schools.'
More like NO scrutiny. And those 'sponsors' who are essentially paid to look the other way.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 11:05am

Actually you are wrong, again, the parents actually had to believe and continue believing that their kids were better served by a charter school, as opposed to the school assignment by zip code you prefer.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:12pm

The evidence suggests that charter schools underperform or match their public school counterparts

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:20pm

But you nor I know their kids do we? As you like to say for abortion, it's between them their kids and what ever school they choose not us!

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 11:34am

The evidence actually suggests that charter school students perform significantly better than their traditional school district counterparts, especially for urban charter schools such as in Detroit. See Stanford University's CREDO center studies (2010 and 2015) http://urbancharters.stanford.edu/download/Urban%20Charter%20School%20St....

Also this NPR story from 2017 https://www.michiganradio.org/post/test-scores-detroit-charter-schools-t.... The improvement in test scores continues for as long as students attend a charter school, to the point where many kids can catch up to their grade level after 4 or 5 years at a charter school because they make more than 1 years' progress per school year. Charter schools accomplish this with the state's minimum per-pupil foundation allowance, and no bond or sinking fund money to support their facilities, textbook purchases, etc.

Jack Matthias
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 6:25pm

I am a School Board Member in Hillman. The state has given more funds over the past few years, but what they give with one hand - they take back with the other. Pension fund contributions have gone up tremendously to cover underfunded, but generous fixed benefit pensions. We now pay 37%+ of wages and salaries in pension costs. Pensions are decided at the state level and we have no ability to control them at the local level. There has been little, if any, net increase in funding.
Also costs do not go down proportionately as enrollments decrease, placing additional pressure on resources and fund balances. 70% + of Michigan school districts have lost students due to a variety of factors like smaller family size, declining population, especially in small rural districts, home schooling and charter schools. Still have to maintain buildings, run buses, prepare meals and you can't easily reduce a teaching position because you have a couple less students in a grade, again especially in small districts.
Can't take much of what the Mackinac Center says at face value.

Richard Mauer
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 8:12pm

I'm not from Michigan (actually, I'm from Alaska, where we have our own Koch Brothers state organization) but I stumbled upon this commentary. DeGrow's argument is extremely suspect because he first talks about absolute funding, then puts it in the relative terms of "cost of living" for Michigan residents: "From 2000 to 2010, average household earnings barely inched forward, falling behind rises in the cost of living." While the pain of taxation may amount to a hard hit on the average person in Michigan, that's NOT what he's arguing at the start of this piece. It's muddled, though filled with incendiary language, like "panic-inducing report" and "doled out."

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 8:24pm

Maybe Mr. DeGrow doesn't know or thinks the readers don't know or won't remember when the foundation allowance was slashed $469 per pupil in 2010. Maybe he doesn't remember or thinks we don't know or remember that the foundation allowance stayed at or below the the amount provided in 2007 for almost a decade. He also fails to explain how the exhaustive research and the significant data provided by the School Research Collaborative resulted in a recommendation that we have a foundation allowance of $9500 per pupil in order to provide essential services to our students in Michigan.
All too often the increases that he and our legislators have touted when they downplay the recommendations for increased financial support for our public schools, they fail to mention that the increases are often not to the basic foundation allowance but rather in the form of categorical funding which is restricted to certain uses. They also don't like to broadcast their support for online, often for profit, cyber schools. These schools have receive the same foundation allowance as have our public community schools. They have virtually no infrastructure and a track record of little or no success and are rarely held accountable. This is essentially a license to cheat tax payers, public schools, and taxpayers. Our legislators continue to support this as "school choice" even when Gov. Snyder recommended these schools receive only half of the basic foundation allowance. These schools do, in fact, offer school choice - an extremely poor choice.
As an educator with over 40 years experience, I watched academic programming and student support services reduced or eliminated almost every year during 10-15 years. Some, not all, of the cuts were the result of declining enrollment. None of the cuts occurred due to increased funding.

Vince Caruso
Wed, 03/20/2019 - 10:56pm

He's right the Mackinac Center doesn't care about public schools, none of their kids or their friend's kids will attend. "We don't care about no stinking public schools. Why should we pay."
It's just the vast majority of Michiganders that care and they don't even know what the Mackinac Center is.
Michigan has a grand history of great public schools which helped everyone, and yes, really helped our economy,
and yes, was fair to all. It is the Great Experiment in Public Schools for all and Democracy we have here in America, just so you know.
Easy for the GOP to tare down, much harder to build up. A New day in Michigan, Mackinac Center get used to it.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 12:57pm

I am afraid that your politics is getting in the way of you seeing reality.
If you look at the local governing bodies [school boards] and the performance of the students in those districts, I suspect you will see that the higher rated/better student performance are in districts where the Republican Board membership is the majority, and the results will invert where the Democrats have control. This is my experience; where I went to school, where our kids graduated high school, where we are living and the districts around us.
I think the history you are touting was when the old strength leveraged economy [when the Big 3 were growing] was dominate and now that we are in a knowledge/skills driven economy that history isn't as relevant.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:10pm

Or, if you take a materialist perspective, one could argue that those districts dominated by Republicans are probably more wealthy, which is the single most important factor for predicting school performance

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 9:29pm

And why do you think those districts are 'wealthier'? Could it be that the people in those districts have taken advantage of the education system through public school on into college or other certified advanced training programs?
I don't put as much on the politics, I think it is more about those who do achieve academic success learn that it is due to their own efforts, their desire, their sacrifices, their responsibility, and they project what learned into their lifestyles and it even influences their politics a bit.
I do agree that the districts are 'wealthier', but that is simply a side benefit of their added knowledge and skills, an engineer, a doctor, lawyer, n accountant, tend to receive a greater compensation. I know it was true for each of our daughters, BS engineer and MBA respectively.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 10:32am

Your grasp of causality is nonexistent. Wealthier people segregate themselves by moving away from poor and declining areas. Those same wealthy people vote Republican because it's in their class interest. They're not wealthy because they're Republicans, they're Republicans because they're wealthy. Meritocracy is a myth, and even a cursory glance at the statistics of cyclical poverty will make it very clear that it takes more than hard work and grit to escape poverty. It's mostly down to luck and circumstance.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 1:54pm

As all good Marxists you are an economic determinist. But I know very many people of very modest wealth that vote R. But I'd suggest that the same character/mind set/ values what ever you call it, may make someone tend towards the right as well as tending to be above average wealth/income and visa versa?

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 4:57pm

You seem to ignore the probability that their wealth is a product of their learning, the knowledge and skills they have gained through their learning. What do you attribute their wealth to?
Why do you think that people should learn, why should they be growing their knowledge and skills if not to gain control their lives, where they live, the lifestyles they want, providing more for their children than they had?
My life says you’re wrong, work and grit can take you from being ‘poor’ to have a successful live [financially and personally]. I grew up ‘poor’ [my Dad only had an 8th grade education, my Mother earn her GED when she was in her 60s], I was a ‘C’ student in school, worked my way through college [commuted to WSU] to earn my degree [my wife did the same], with my degree in hand was hired by a science based global company, we extended the desire to learn to our daughters [earning BA/MBA, engineering BS respectively], our neighborhood is more affluent while my school district is Democrat. If you need more specifics about grit and work and poverty just ask. Oh, I have not become a Republican, but I left my ‘yellow dog’ Democrat up-bring. I even explain why and when the political change.

Vince Caruso
Fri, 03/22/2019 - 9:35am

Just one glaring example: U of M was funded by the state at 80% cost, now that has flipped to 20% or less hence the huge rise in the tuitions. Former Gov. Snyder bragged, without a clue, he worked and paid his way through college at U of M. Nuff Said.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 3:23pm


School board members in Michigan do not run on a partisan basis, therefore the idea that there is any measurable difference based on either party in control is impossible to even speculate about.

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 7:52pm

If one lives in a district where in every partisan election the same Party, to the point that periodically the other Party, then the majority of the Board will be with that dominate Party. Patterns of partisan voting are a measure of the residents politics, if not then the 2016 election would not have been a surprise to all the media, the Parties, the professional politicians.

Do you truly believe that the Detroit Board or any number of school Boards in Wayne County have Boards whose majority is Republican, or that Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw are control Republicans? There will be exceptions, but they prove the rule because they are so rare.
I have lived in both Democrat and Republican dominated partisan voting [city, county, state representative] districts and the candidates for the school boards were consistently controlled by the dominate Party.

abe bubush
Thu, 03/21/2019 - 1:26am

Just because corporate policies destroyed all the good paying jobs in industry and collapsed the Michigan economy, it doesn't mean schools need to follow suit.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 2:25pm

You need to get out more. It's not poor people buying all those expensive homes I see.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 9:20am

Who trusts the Mackinaw Center I do not. They tend to support charters, profiteering from education, and push anything from Koch brothers and GOP lobbyists. Betsy DeVos is the hero of the Mackinaw Center and her husband supports it with lots of money. Who do support hard working teachers who will never become millionaires or or real $millionaires/billionaires?

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 8:21am

In lefty bingo you're well on your way!

Martha Toth
Thu, 03/21/2019 - 3:09pm

DeGrow notes that one reason Michigan school funding dropped so precipitously around 2010 was that “federal funding slowed down quickly after the Obama administration's extra stimulus boosts.” YES. This funding was meant to be a bridge through the worst of the Great Recession, keeping public education afloat until the states could pick up their responsibiliries again. INSTEAD of doing so, our governor and legislature chose to CUT school funding even more, contributing significantly to the decline in public education services and results from which the state still suffers today.

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 8:24pm

First, the link that reads "all time high" goes to a report from PIRG that discusses "Michigan's Leaky Teacher Pipeline", not the expected chart showing increases in state and total per-pupil funding .

Second, the writer is correct. Michigan has not "disinvested in our public schools".

Our per-pupil spending has grown at slightly higher than inflation since 2010, and dropped much, much less than state income (sales, income and property taxes) fell overall during 2007-2009. We are spending more total dollars to educate fewer Michigan students. The accusation of having the "lowest rate of increase in the nation" implies that Gov. Whitmer and the MSU experts who came up with the "adequacy study" ignored the 37% of current payroll has been designated to fund teacher pensions and retiree health insurance. They must think that money should instead be spent on current teacher salaries and benefits, paying more administrators, adding more and more elaborate athletic facilities, computer labs, etc. Right now we're making up for at least some of the extremely optimistic estimates of pension fund investment returns that were made under Governors Engler and Granholm, and were finally forced toward more realistic values by Governor Snyder, and both Michigan's One State recession in the early 2000's and the nation-wide Great Recession.

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 8:07pm

I would question the basis for the report in the first place. Using money as a measure of quality education is a misnomer. Economics play a part, as does the health of the family where kids are being educated. Wage earners in our Right-to-Work state need to work more than one job and more than 40 hours a week. This leads to exhaustion and neglect of parents struggling with poverty and want. As jobs moved out of Michigan through consolidation, merger and wage flight, good jobs were gone with nothing to replace them. Money in schools is not the only measure of education. How has the Mackinaw Center addressed the needs of families except to support the downfall of well paying union jobs to be replaced by Walmart wages and public assistance to get by? By being committed to the profits of the rich, they deny that workers deserve a wage they can live on to support children in learning.

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 7:52pm

You seem to leave out all those who only have one job, because it is a full time plus with a wage rate above average earnings and even at a high level. These people are most likely ones that stayed in school, invested in advanced learning, have financial discipline that have allowed them to live in the 'wealthier' districts.
As for the profits, as we have seen that private employers need money to pay the bills, such as payrolls, so they need a profit to stay in business. Your choice; profitable businesses that survive, paying taxes, or failed employers that are out of business and no longer employing people. The reality is that 'profits' are the ultimate accountability, no profits then they fail. Our government agencies don't have such accountability, they keep getting taxes no matter what their performance.

Lori Tauer
Mon, 03/25/2019 - 10:06am

Chest thumping acknowledged. Just what is $14,000 providing MI pupils? It certainly is not providing them an adequate education. (MI ranked a disappointing 38th! by the NAEP)