Opinion | Maryland invests in schools. Michigan doesn’t. Maryland thrives.

Brad Lyman attended public schools in Michigan and taught in Maryland higher education. He now lives in Traverse City.

A generation ago, Maryland and Michigan chose different paths.

For Maryland children it has been the best of times, for Michigan children it has been the worst of times. In this tale of two states, Maryland’s school financing choices drove the public schools into the top 10 states nationally, while Michigan’s choices drove public school achievement down. This real world experiment produced definitive results.  

The primary driver of Michigan’s education decline began in 1994 with Proposal A. It significantly reduced property taxes and prohibited taxation by most local school districts to support operating expenses. In a failed attempt to equalize funding, most local school districts are allocated a “foundation grant” from the state. Some districts (mostly wealthy) avoid low funding through “out-of-formula” and “hold harmless” loopholes.

Over the next 25 years Michigan failed to properly fund public schools. MSU’s College of Education recent report “Michigan School Finance at the Crossroads” comprehensively documents this failure. Additionally, Michigan has instituted the stick of state takeover for local school districts that fail to operate within the state mandated foundation grant ($7,871 per student in 2018-19).  

In 1999, Maryland created a Commission on Education, Finance, Equity and Excellence. Known as the “Thornton Commission,” it produced a report in 2002 and the Maryland Legislature passed the “Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act.” Maryland went beyond equalization of funding to provide more resources to poorer districts and underperforming schools.  Combined state and local funding of Maryland school districts ranged from $12,605 to $17,450 per-student in 2018.

Maryland established educational goals and provided resources to attain them. Michigan imposes the austerity of its foundation grant and then settles for whatever academic achievement occurs.

Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2018” ranks Maryland sixth and  Michigan 34th nationally. US NEWS 2018 rated Maryland third in high schools with Michigan ranking 22nd. Only 0.8 percent of Michigan high schools rated a US News Gold Medal, while 5 percent of Maryland’s high schools received a Gold Medal – six times the rate of Michigan.

In 2018, The College Board reported that Massachusetts (32.1 percent) edged out Maryland (31.2 percent) for the highest share of graduates scoring a 3 or better on an Advanced Placement Exam. Michigan, at 20.6 percent, is below the national average of 22.8 percent. Other national metrics confirm the pattern: Michigan’s Proposal A is failing, while  Maryland’s Thornton Plan is succeeding.

In 2002, Maryland’s Thornton Commission recommendations seemed politically unattainable, but both Democratic and Republican administrations embraced their children’s future and drove Maryland into the top 10.

In contrast, Michigan’s system holds most districts down, only the few “out of formula” and “hold harmless” districts can approach Maryland’s per-student spending. Proposal A and subsequent school underfunding  placed the welfare of children second to the avarice of taxpayers and the reelection campaigns of tax-cutting state politicians.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission (2017) made sweeping recommendations and the Michigan Finance Research Collaborative (2018) provides financial estimates for upgrading Michigan schools. Michigan’s State School Board should be applauded for aspiring to the “Top 10 in 10 Years” but that can’t be achieved with catch phrases and good intentions.

In 2019, it is expected that Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will recommend additional state funding in the range of $4 billion per year over the next decade. Will another generation of Michigan children fall farther behind leading states like Maryland?

Proper funding is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for Michigan to compete nationally in educational achievement. Michigan’s failure is not for want of vision nor for practical models to emulate; it is a failure of will by politicians and the citizens who elect them.

Despite the best efforts of dedicated school boards, administrators and teachers, the state’s willful educational austerity has brought declining academic achievement. The best of times for Michigan students will require significant resources. The Whitmer administration and the Michigan Legislature owe Michigan a proper public education funding system.

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Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:02am

Why are the democrates letting the republicans give money illegally to privet schools????

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 5:44pm

Two things, Devos and Charter school

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:18am

The GOP doesn't want 'too much education'. They want people smart enough to work for the GOP's corporate donors but don't want them smart enough to see through some of the GOP's anti-middle class smoke screen. Less educated voters are easier to scam so education is a scary thing to the GOP. Less is better for them.

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 5:50pm

Did you learn that kind of logic in the state schools?

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 8:36am

you are absolutely correct.

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 8:59am

To quote Donald Trump "I love the uneducated!"

Barb Goudreau
Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:32am

The avarice of taxpayers? Pretty harsh. No taxpayers are tired of ever rising taxes and living expenses with no increase in income. Tired of carrying the load while businesses get all the breaks and tax subsidies. I’m a senior now and almost to the point of HAVING to downsize because of the burden of increasing taxes. I now know why so many seniors I know have left the state and their families. There has to be a better way.

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 11:25am

It is only harsh to those who choose not to shoulder there civic responsibilities. If you have such a problem with the unfair nature of taxation in this state you should take it up with your representative's in Lansing not your local youth. It never ceases to amaze me how senior's feel it is no longer their responsibility to contribute to society while insisting they be taken care of. I am sure no senior's have left Michigan because of the harsh weather moreover its probably their inability to shoulder societal responsibilities.

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 8:05am

Please do not paint all seniors with the same brush. Yes, there are seniors who feel “entitled” - and after a lifetime of contributions they surely are entitled to some things. But NONE of us should ever feel we we have “completed” our contributions to society. As long as we live in this society we must contribute to it. And when it comes to children and education we should all be clamoring for the best and opening our wallets and checkbooks to support it. It’s probably the best investment we can make in our society and our future. Every senior I know would agree. We simply want a system that taxes fairly (fixed income vs huge corporations and the incredibly wealthy) and a vision and educational plan that gets results. You are right, Mark; youth should never be caught in the crossfire of any ideological differences. They should be our FIRST priority at every turn. And yes, I do put my money where my mouth is and at 70 still support every millage, serve on the Board of an educational Foundation, and believe that as a state and a nation we need to prioritize education at the top of our list!

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 3:08pm

I think we are supposed to downsize when we retire:). While we are still working, we can afford to pay enough taxes to give students what they need and then you get the smaller dwelling and then pay less taxes. It mystifies me why Michigan Republicans are so indisposed to meeting higher educational standards. The better educated the populace is, the more likely they are to become tax paying citizens. Why would anyone want less for their own kids? Charter schools haven't proven to be of any benefit, but somehow it's okay to divert money from public schools to line the wallets of private interprise when it's shown no particular advantage over the public system.

Judyth Peterson
Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:54am

Amen! Thank you Mr. Lyman. Lansing please take heed!

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 10:08am

It is tragic that Michigan has succumbed to the efforts of "think" tanks funded by the Koch brothers. Their systematic attacks on education funding, teachers and public schools resonate with people primarily because of their volume and repetition. Gaslighting is an unfortunately-effective tactic, especially when those who suffer from the results can be convinced that public education funding is the enemy -- convinced by those who profit from diverting public funding to their private and charter school business schemes.

If Michigan is to be a leader in technological progress, we must make proper investments in educating our kids. Otherwise we will have to import quality workers (i.e. better-educated) from states like Maryland and then wonder (cluelessly) why Michigan's students are passed over for prime job opportunities.

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 11:48am

I wholeheartedly agree, Dave, except that I think Betsy DeVos, and her campaign contributions to Michigan legislators, has had an even bigger role in attacking our public school system than the "think" tanks funded by the Koch brothers.

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:11pm

You can start by thanking Engler. Sales tax 6% and lottery money for schools. It is a shell game. Pay now or pay later. Education and child care are critical. R.L.

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 5:52pm

The answer for the public education industry is always more money. Never to improve the system.

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 7:54pm

It seems to work pretty darn well for Maryland.

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 3:01pm

The money allows for the systems to be improved. This is as a Maryland teacher who taught in Michigan for seven years.

Dan Moerman
Mon, 02/11/2019 - 6:27pm

Michigan needs a graduated income tax.

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 10:13am

Somebody gets it, finally

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 7:29pm

I grew up in Michigan and went to public school. I moved to Maryland after graduating from a public Michigan University. I was the top in my class in both and was not wealthy or privelaged, so I did not receive any perks to put me in the top position. I now have an excellent job and am paid well above my peers in equivalent jobs in Michigan. My children now go to Maryland Public schools. I am fortunate enough to live in what is considered a “good” school district, but it is not a top performing district. I don’t know where the author taught in Maryland, but all of the public schools here are not doing well and do not fall into the top tier of schools in the country. This article is misleading. There are many poorly funded schools and underpaid teachers. One of the biggest ballot issues in this state is around education funding. There are several affluent areas in the state that sway the percentages and those are the schools that fall into the top percentage of schools in the country. Please do your own research and do not take this article as hard evidence that everything about Michigan Public Schools is terrible. There are certainly problems, but comparing them to Maryland schools is not the great example this article would lead you to believe.

KR Vig
Tue, 02/19/2019 - 7:48am

I will accept at face value Mr. Lyman's evaluation of the quality of the MI education system vs. that of MD. However MI already outspends MD viewed both as a percent of GDP (32% vs 27%) and per capita ($3,370 vs. $3,050). It raises the one question we never see asked in the Bridge Magazine: "Where the hell is all of our money going?"

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 7:44pm

I believe Charter schools are over rated and many have been found to taking money and not using it for intended purposes. Our children are the future of ‘‘tis state and the country. We the people owe them the best education they can have.