Opinion | It’s time for less testing, more funding for Michigan schools

Ron Koehler is an assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District

One of my favorite music artists, John Prine, once wrote a song with the refrain, “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.”

That is about the only rational thing I can say about the current state of politics. The most recent example is the record-setting orgy of excess that recently concluded the 99th session of the Michigan Legislature.

For the third time in as many years the Legislature refined the school accountability measurement system by adopting an A-F formula that will give schools letter grades on their performance on standardized tests.

And the Legislature diverted more funds from the School Aid Fund to repair potholes and finance environmental cleanup. This diversion ‒ more than $140 million immediately and growing to nearly $180 million on an annual basis ‒ brings this year’s total to more than $1 billion when added to the $908 million already being taken from our K-12 classrooms to finance higher education.

Related: Six systems in 7 years and Michigan students still lag. Now comes A to F.

The A-F bill was passed, of course, because lawmakers claim schools are failing to produce college and career-ready students.  And, of course, they are diverting more funds away from K-12 classrooms each year to ensure our K-12 districts will not have sufficient resources to meet their demands.

The most comprehensive school funding study in the nation released earlier this year by the School Finance Research Collaborative makes it clear Michigan districts cannot afford the supports students and teachers require to achieve Michigan standards.

So, the beatings will continue until morale improves. More apt, however, is the observation made by an Iowa farmer and school board member some years back when discussing the new standards put in place by President George W. Bush under the “No Child Left Behind” elementary and secondary education act.

“You can’t fatten a hog by weighing it,” said the farmer, expressing the simple truth that coming up with new, more frequent and elaborate measurements will never take the place of adequate nourishment and husbandry.  

Our Michigan Legislature and the Snyder administration ignored this simple piece of common sense. Following the $470 per pupil “rebasing” of the per-pupil foundation grant in 2011, this administration spent 77 cents of every new dollar in the School Aid Fund somewhere other than the classroom. Much of it was spent on community colleges and higher education ‒ even as they criticize our students for needing remediation (fattening) once they get there ‒ and most of the rest on unfunded pension liabilities.

The $470 per pupil cut that afforded Gov. Snyder his signature $1.5 billion corporate income tax cut means every child who started kindergarten in 2011 will have had $3,760 less invested in his or her elementary and middle school experience than if there had been no cut at all.

For a classroom of 30 ‒ too large, says the research, but common in Michigan ‒ that’s $112,800 less. That could have brought those children the expertise of reading experts and professional development for their teachers. It could have brought a social worker or guidance counselor to those children, to provide expert assistance for social and emotional needs.

But instead, those dollars went to tax breaks for corporations that, from 2011 through today, have enjoyed the longest period of economic expansion in Michigan and U.S. history. And those diverted dollars virtually guarantee our children cannot achieve the standards our Legislature set for them. That was the conclusion of the School Finance Research Collaborative study.

Hogs don’t gain weight by standing on a scale. Children don’t learn without the educational nourishment to fulfill their needs. It’s just common sense, which is pretty uncommon in today’s world.

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Dr. Mike Shibler
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 9:13am

Well written, Ron! If the reader takes the time to validate Mr. Koeler's remarks, they will discover the facts stated in the article are true and accurate. Either K-12 education will become a priority for Michigan citizens and state lawmakers, or we will continue to lament about the challenges facing public education years from now, in part, created by the on-going transfer of K-12 revenues from the School Aid Fund(SAF) to the state's General Fund(GF). Dr. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 10:28am

"It's all about the children" my behind. Michigan's Public School Education Industry is all the adults employed in it. More money through the decades had never got better results for children and families.

Jeffrey Kless
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 6:15pm

Where I learned math his salary increased less than 2% a year which was less than inflation. I would have never put up with those paltry raises as the idea is to make more money not less.

Ed Haynor
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 11:03am

I suspect Mr. Koehler and Dr. Shibler, over their educational careers, are responsible for more goodness in the education and well-being of children, even the best-informed readers will ever know. Although their salaries are public information, this information provided by Pig farmer and Jerry, is not very germane to Mr. Koehler’s opinion piece, particularly when Pig farmer and Jerry don’t even have the courage to identify themselves; therefore, lack any verifiable expertise in the subject matter, Mr. Koehler speaks of.

Who knows, maybe Pig farmer and Jerry are covert operatives working on behalf of the Mackinac Center for republican policy? And speaking of the Mackinac Center, as an anti-public school organization, they qualify as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, which likely pays no taxes that might benefit school children. And that my friends is about as convoluted and unjust use of the U.S tax code that is possible.

Pig farmer
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 9:29am

Mr. Koehler's hog got fed, though. The Snyder years were very good for him personally. Here's the last five years of his salary:
2014: $130,601.70
2015: $151,200.00
2016: $154,198.60
2017: $156,511.52
2018: $166,010.15
This does not include the costs of his taxpayer-funded health benefits, pension, expense account or retirement account.

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 10:29am

Exactly. Total compensation is outlandish.

Chuck Fellows
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 9:45am

Common sense is no longer all that common. Michigan spends tens of millions on testing. Data, in the form of test scores, absent context is meaningless.
Take these scores and display them in the form of a histogram. A normal distribution of data will emerge. The "system" is producing the best it can and until the system is actually improved (by addressing real causes instead of symptoms) all the testing in the world will change nothing. Start listening to the teachers and their students. Ignore the experts.

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 10:32am

Exactly right. My daughter is a 6th year high school teacher and is fed up, ready to quit the field, because her common sense suggestion are always shot down because of politic and protecting the status quo. The 'experts" are in it to make money for themselves.

Jim Pearson, re...
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 11:27am

The analogy of “You can’t fatten a hog by weighing it” could be taken even further. The annual state per pupil Foundation Grant has been less than inflation for more than a decade with the exception of 2018 (an election year) when it was a plus 0.7 percent. What is the point of weighing when you are starving your investment? Our schools have been eaten alive by inflation.
Further, the state is funding the “livestock” with differing amounts of “nourishment.” The Michigan school finance system funds districts at dramatically different rates and has the nerve to grade them all with the same, new A to F performance scale. Both are unjust.
Michigan citizens are not a all pleased by the outcome of Proposal A (1994) in which school funding was largely taken over by the state with the promise of steady, reliable revenue for schools. However, recent legislatures, under Republican leadership, have used the School Aid Fund as a piggy bank to facilitate their spending and tax breaks to business. The raid on the SAF was just shy of a billion dollars this year alone.
It is time for our leaders in Michigan government to stop this school funding deceit and to truly invest in our next generation in a logical and scientific manner.

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 12:24pm

I'm not a member of ResearchGate so I haven't read the full paper. But this summary is intriguing. I've always wondered if somebody had attempted to study the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools since Michigan has been involved in the charter school game for almost a quarter of a century.
"This paper examines the competitive effects of charter schools on the efficiency of traditional public schools. The analysis utilizes a statewide school-level longitudinal dataset of Michigan schools from 1994 to 2004. Fixed effect and two alternative estimation methods are employed. Overall, the results suggest that charter competition had a negative impact on student achievement and school efficiency in Michigan's traditional public schools. The effect is small or negligible in the short run, but becomes more substantial in the long run."

Tim O
Thu, 01/17/2019 - 4:52pm

Just give us more money and stopping asking us to be accountable. Makes sense to Mr Koehler!

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 9:01am

Get politicians out of the classroom. They go wherever there is a pot of public money to steal and divert into their pockets. Capitalists, politicians, and corruption run amok.

Sat, 01/19/2019 - 10:00am

Mr. Koehler's comments, complete with folksy analogies, are on the mark in terms of the ongoing trend to underfund MI schools. Several of the commenters have attacked him and Mr. Shibler for the amount they earn at their jobs. That is unfortunate and irrelevant. Their leadership positions in large and complex organizations, Kent ISD and Rockford Public Schools, along with their levels of education and length of service and experiences warrant the salaries and benefits they receive. They earn considerably less that those who administer organizations of similar size and budget in the private sector. What are easily corroborated are Mr. Koehler's supporting details and numbers.
After the brutal $470 per pupil cut in 2010 the the per pupil state aid remained below the 2007 amount until 2015. Gov. Snyder used the money to shore up funding for colleges and universities which could no longer be funded through the general fund due to the massive corporate tax cuts. Thus may seem like shrewd business, but it was a tremendous betrayal of voters and the democratic process in MI. When voter passed Prop A in 1994, they supported a 2% increase in sales tax to creat a dedicated school aid fund. It was never suggested or intended that the funds were for anything other than the support of our public schools. Even the GOP authors of the Prop during the Engler admin have admitted as much.
Mr. Koehler did miss one thing in his assessment of the history that has led us to this crisis in our education system. Gov. Snyder was not the first to raid the school aid fund to shore up his budget. Gov. Granholm did raid the fund once during the depth of the recession and called it a loan to the general fund. Snyder took her idea and expanded it into an annual raid of hundreds of millions of dollars.
People who want to ignore the work of the School Research Collaborative should read it. It is dense with numbers and details and lengthy, but it is well researched. It has become a bit of a trend to dismiss research that reaches conclusions that suggest a need for difficult decisions or increased sacrifice and financial support, but that doesn't make the research any less valid.