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

Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, is a state senator representing the 7th District, covering Livonia, Plymouth, Northville and Canton.

For decades, Michigan was a beacon for educators from around the country looking to shape the next generation.

Our education system, teachers and, most importantly, our students, thrived. Then, a massive disinvestment in K-12 education began in 2010.

As a public high school English teacher for nearly two decades, I’ve seen firsthand how things have changed for the worse for Michigan’s schools and students over the past nine years.

Districts’ ability to afford employment for librarians, classroom resource professionals, literacy coaches and teachers remains difficult. Many teachers are taking second jobs to make ends meet and paying for classroom basics from their own pockets as a result of diminishing state education funding.

Another perspective: Michigan schools need a fairer funding model for all students
Rebuttal: Calm down, Michigan, the sky isn’t falling, nor is school funding

So, what gives? How can Republicans continue to claim Michigan has the “most school funding in history”?

It turns out one of their favorite sources, The Mackinac Center, is looking only at raw dollars and the Consumer Price Index, which is primarily intended to explain price changes in retail goods, not educational expenses.

So, while technically the past four years have seen an increase in raw dollar funding — which is how The Mackinac Center is claiming school revenues are at an all-time high — the dire reality is this: it isn’t nearly enough to keep up with inflation’s true impact on our schools’ budgets. The dollars going directly to classrooms, versus other expenses, also haven’t increased.

Michigan ranks dead last among states in school funding growth since the pass of Proposal A in 1994. In fact, Fiscal Year 2018-19 funding is 38 percent lower than funding would have been if we had kept pace with inflation since 1994 as measured by the state and local government price deflator.

The bottom line is that Michigan schools and students have been struggling for nearly a decade now, and our kids are the ones being shorted. Our students’ ability to succeed in the classroom or find a good-paying job — in addition to Michigan’s ability to attract new high-wage jobs — are serious consequences we cannot afford.

Let’s get our priorities straight by putting political games aside to make sure we give all our kids a world-class education and make our state stronger.

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Fri, 03/08/2019 - 12:26pm

"...The Mackinac Center, is looking only at raw dollars and the Consumer Price Index, which is primarily intended to explain price changes in retail goods, not educational expenses."
There is a reason that price changes are measured against the CPI, a general index, and not against industry specific indexes, to not do this allows out of control prices/costs to look perfectly normal when measured against themselves and then give the results that are sought. If we measured run-away drug cost inflation against a drug/medical price index instead of the CPI we'd get a very different picture of drug price inflation, also. There is a reason this study was constructed this way, to get the results it's sponsors desired. If she taught math or econ she might have figured this out.

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 5:48pm

Hi, Matt. I assume you're knowledgeable in this matter from your response, but your last sentence makes me feel otherwise. If you'd like to be taken seriously in the future, I suggest you act like an educated adult. Just some conservative criticism. Or maybe it's an example of our under funded schools?..

The Grammarian
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 6:47am

The power of your argument is also lessened by your errors in conventions: " to not do this allows" (split infinitive),"it's sponsors" (it's=it is, not its, the correct possessive form), and "If she taught math or econ she might have figured this out." (missing the comma after "econ"). Have you ever taught in a public school, also? If not, you might like to try working out a budget on a public school teacher's salary.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 11:59am

Is the inflation the same for the schools as that for the general economy? What is a major cost for schools? If it salaries, are they growing at the same rate of inflation as the general economy and do the schools have influence on what that 'inflation' will might be?
The reality is that 'raw' dollars are accurate, they are something that all can measure, while inflations and other considerations are fudged [do they have a seasonable adjustment], they are adjustable to the convenience of the person touting them.
Your choice, a number that all can measure, is consistent, and is repeatable or a number that is only as accurate and repeatable as the author wants it to be. Which inflation factor do you use, the 'consumer price index' or the 'core price index'?

John Q. Public
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 12:57pm

Dave and Grammarian:

If one is going to be pedantic concerning matters of punctuation, grammar and construction, it's a good idea to be perfect in those matters oneself.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 4:30pm

The paper was pointing out that Michigan compares poorly to other states, when looking at the growth (or decline) in spending on eduation.
The index you use will not change michigan's ranking -- but, I'm guessing you already figured this out?

Matt Wilk
Fri, 03/08/2019 - 4:54pm

Wut? "while technically the past four years have seen an increase in raw dollar funding" -- is there another kind of increase? Between 75% and 90% of school expenses are teacher's salaries, pensions and benefits. Have they gone up faster than inflation? I'm not sure this cuts the way she thinks this does.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 11:22am

If not enough funds are flowing into the classrooms, maybe the administrators and teachers need to analyze their own salaries! School boards could or should have better control over this. They should be working for the good of the children vs the political clout they can gain by giving salary increases!

Lori Gilbo
Tue, 03/12/2019 - 6:02pm

If you were a teacher, you would understand. From September to June your child is our priority, however just like you we have bills. Our salaries...4 to 8 years of school, and 20 credit hours per school year or more. Elementary, middle school, and high school teachers all have different skills depending on the their level of expertise. All we want are dynamic schools that produce dynamic citizens. Not too much to ask...or should teachers lower their expectations of their students. Society, it is up to you!

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 3:54pm

What are the significant changes in Michigan 'education' over the last couple of generations? How have they impacted the learning of students? How do the continuing education courses enhance the student learning?
What are the expectations of the students? What is their individual role and responsibilities for their learning?

Maybe this is the time to look at classroom learning from a different perspective. Much of industry has changed, the public has different expectations of business, maybe we need to be given a new perspective of schools and learning, maybe we need to be shown the roles/responsibilities of each of us in our communities to support better student results. How can the people in our communities can become a resource of learning and our schools/teachers?

Chris Carpenter
Fri, 03/08/2019 - 6:00pm

The reason the two figures are off and a lot of money is not going into classroom is things like too many administrators making huge salaries, money going to pay for underfunded pensions and healthcare costs that were not funded by the schools as they occurred but kicked down the road. There are a lot of people who are on fixed incomes who cannot afford more tax increases to pay for school funding. Start cutting the fat at the top like administrators and get the money to the classrooms.

Christian Young
Mon, 07/15/2019 - 8:27pm

Best comment I've read so far on this thread.

Sat, 03/09/2019 - 7:43am

Started in 1994 with then Gov. John Engler his new better way brought the demise we face with education and public schools today. We need to make all public schools great in Michigan.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 12:12pm

Which is the demise is the last 8 years as the Democrat Senator from Livonia claims or is it back Engler and includes Granholm?
It sounds like you feel that there was a time when Michigan schools were great, so you simply want to make public school in Michigan 'Great Again.'

I think if you look past the headlines and the political rhetoric, you would find it is the students that make the results and the success of the schools. I would encourage you to look around, find the success [there are many] and learn from the student how and why they succeed before placing blame. Look back at your own public education history, do you remember everyone getting As or Fs or was it a distribution of As - Fs? If the performance in the classroom [where all was the same] was varied then the only difference was the students so maybe you should think about what made the students different before being preoccupied with money.

James Katakowski
Sat, 03/09/2019 - 8:32am

School funding and education in Michigan has gone down ever since 1994 when ex. Gov. John Engler started his better way on the cheap. How to destroy unions and teaching profession which lead to what we have now. His anti-public education view and his charters and profiteering off student foundation grant has cost more and done less. Now with less students and a lot of wasted testing for no apparent reason except for a GOP political agenda to continue to bash teachers. A shortage of these professionals is on the near horizon.

The Grammarian
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 10:46am

Amen, Amen, Amen!

Chris Justice
Sat, 03/09/2019 - 2:28pm

this study is sobering, we have badly neglected our public schools in Michigan and this puts us at a real competitive disadvantage in attracting businesses with high wage, high growth job opportunities. It also ensures that we will continue to bleed talented young people who will choose states with high quality educational opportunities for their families. I have seen this with my own children who are unlikely to come back to Michigan when they finish their graduate studies, the opportunities are just not here in many fields...


Sun, 03/10/2019 - 6:18am

Just go visit your local schools and observe some of the differences, School classroom size, teaching supplies, upkeep and building maintenance to name a few. 5 or 6 years ago teachers and all employees took a 10% pay cut , increase in their contributing to the retirement system, and paying 20% for their insurances. Follow this with another 5 years of no raises. Staring pay went from $36,400 to about $32,500. Love to hear from you. Peace R.L.

Craig Douglas
Sun, 03/10/2019 - 7:05am

I served over 20 years as a school superintendent (1991- 2013) in two school districts (Oscoda & Carrollton) during the timeframe the author references. She is absolutely correct in her analysis. The point I would add is the "catch 22" aspect of Proposal A: It is a per/student funding model. Districts in declining enrollment situations lost revenue at alarming rates. At the time of my retirement, about 75% of all Michigan districts were declining in enrollment, and especially hard-hit were districts with charter schools.

S Craig
Sun, 03/10/2019 - 9:10am

I’m a social studies teacher in Birmingham Schools. I agree with the senators analysis about the decline in inflation adjusted dollars since 1994. The decline has been even steeper in the so called out of formula districts like Birmingham. But there is one factor not mentioned in the article. Districts have been adding administive position. Some of these are in the buildings, but in the case of many districts, like BPS. The additions have been at the central administration level. We’ve seen a 30-40% increase in Birmingham central administrative positions since the big cuts hit in 2011. Many of these newly created administrators spend the bulk of their time meeting with each other. They have little positive impact on the classrooms. I urge legislators to look at capping the per cent age of school funding that can be spent on administration

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 10:21am

The Mackinaw Center data implies that the needs of education today are the same as the needs at the time of Proposal A in 1994. Has the state of the nation stagnated for the past 25 years? Are we to expect that industry in general and the auto industry in particular are using the same processes as 1994? It may just be possible that society and technology have made advances that could translate into improved classroom management and educational effectiveness. Everything has a cost and if we expect to have an education system that is effective and modern we must be willing to support innovation and investment in our collective future.

Barry Visel
Sun, 03/10/2019 - 12:35pm

Lately articles in Bridge have mentioned that...Michigan is dead last in per/pupil school funding ‘growth’. This statement is pretty meaningless without placing it in the context of where we stand relative to other states’ total funding per/pupil. Are we dead last there too?

I graduated high school in 1965. I don’t remember having classroom resource pros or literacy coaches. I believe we had one librarian that rotated between buildings. Makes me wonder what else schools think they need today that we didn’t have back then. One thing we did have was that board with a bunch of holes in it...a modern version of the “Hickory Stick” mentioned in the old “School Days” song. We also had a split curriculum...college bound or trades bound. I would love to see an analysis of how education systems back then compare to now.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 11:02am

In ‘65 you didn’t have computers, cell phones, social media. There was no schools of choice and essentially all schools were in a growth position.
One can never live in the same way one grew up. Change is upon us and a fact of life.

Barry Visel
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 1:35pm

John, you’re right, we didn’t have those things, all of which should make teaching more efficient today.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 03/10/2019 - 10:56pm

After criticizing the Mackinac Center's methodology, Senator Polehanki says, "the dire reality is this: it isn’t nearly enough to keep up with inflation’s true impact on our schools’ budgets." Apparently, she did not notice the Center's comment that " the states that increased funding the most didn’t improve their test scores more than the states — like Michigan — that couldn’t keep up fiscally. Six of the top 10 states for academic improvement were among the 11 states with the smallest funding growth." What happened to the assumed correlation between funding and test scores? And why weren't other state's schools crippled by the decline in funding as measured by the State and Local Government Deflator? Or is Michigan unique in that regard?

As Mr. DeGrow of the Mackinac Center points out, the author of the MSU study made a significant, misleading error by not calculating funding on a per-pupil basis. That, after all, is what counts. Such an error calls into question the study's overall quality. Particularly, when the study's author is quoted as saying, "We know we are performing very poorly. We know funding is down. The connection is too strong.” He is making this conclusion on the basis of a sample of one? How does he explain the lack of correlation between funding and test scores for other states?

The crucial question for Senator Polehanki is: how much improvement does she anticipate from Governor Whitmer's proposed increase in funding? What is the minimum improvement would she regard as necessary in order for the additional funding to be regarded as worthwhile? If that minimum improvement fails to occur, is she prepared to explicitly acknowledge her shortcomings as an analyst of education policy?

Fred Stone
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 3:40pm

We must fully fund public education!

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 9:03pm

I wonder if Ms. Polehanki in her classroom there was a distribution of performance across her students or if they all got A's. I wonder if at the beginning of each school year, had she asked her students who would get the A's, C's, or D's would there be much agreement about and if that would have been proven out at the end of the year.
I have to believe that Ms. Polehanki was an excellent teacher and provided the same quality of instruction to every student in her classroom and, yet, unless all got the same grades, the individual students were the most significant reason the learning success varied between students.
I wonder why Ms. Polehanki doesn't mention the role/responsibilities of the student in their own learning and how that was affected by spending.
When all the focus is on money, then who and what creates the results is forgotten. My experience has been that it is what happens after school that creates the learning success of the students, who they have as their micro-culture [kids they socialize with], how they see education impacting their lives/their parents lives, how they study [because applying what was presented in the classroom is when the lesson is learned]. I wonder like to hear how Ms. Polehanki sees increasing money to the State/school districts will change how students learn, how what they do outside the classroom, how their desire to learn will be improved so much that their academic success will be significantly improviced.