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Opinion | Michigan Dems should focus on predictable funding for schools

Democrats in Michigan have an opportunity to correct education policy that has been wayward for more than a decade. Michigan was transformed into a test and punish state under former Governor Rick Snyder, and some of those layers have been softened over the past four years.

Paul Ruth
Paul Ruth is a teacher and writer from St. Clair Shores. (Courtesy photo)

Although the funding of schools has been somewhat mitigated, Michigan schools still face a myriad of issues. It is one thing to chip in needed money to help solve the teacher shortage, it is another to change teacher certification and evaluation. 

First and foremost is to make school funding more predictable. Making school funding more predictable would allow for better district forecasting. Currently, districts rely on the whims of politics one year to the next. It makes it harder for districts to budget, which means it makes it harder for districts to put money down long term on salaries, which makes it harder to solve the teacher shortage issue or hire more counselors in a meaningful way. 

The simplest way to accomplish this, given the nature of school choice and the reliance on per pupil funding, is to move student counts to a true 3-to-5-year moving average. A 2019 Michigan State University report recommended a 3-year moving average where I feel 5 years would provide greater local control. It would allow districts to better budget the number of teachers they would need in a given year, helping to keep class sizes reasonable and retain staff for mental health services. It would also mitigate the statewide decrease in student population that has been occurring for years. Essentially, I would be in favor of a policy that prevents shocks to the school funding system whether going up or down.

Once funding can be projected for a number of years, plenty of other changes can occur, freeing schools to be centers of innovation rather than focused on Lansing politics.  

The teacher mentorship program needs more support. With so many new teachers onboarding and so many older teachers retiring, a school could end up with one teacher mentoring more new teachers than there is time in the day. One source to increase retention of new teachers is to strengthen and require direct relationships between collegiate education programs and K-12 districts. Basically, expand the student teaching concept to include the first year of teaching, creating a support network. A program could provide more specific money to utilize retired teachers in further mentorship roles.

In addition, state policy should support civic engagement in local districts. One policy would be to require all public schools to be administered by a geographically local school board within the county or municipal school district. It would mean that all schools would be utilizing human resource departments, payroll, superintendents’ offices, and more services through traditional systems. This would bring the innovation of charter schools and the experience and accountability of traditional public schools together to improve accountability, teacher retention, save costs and collaborate on education reform.

For too long, forces have sought to fragment schools isolating them against one another and  causing a stand off approach to inter-district relationships. Michigan can be a state where all minds are working together for all students by creating policy that encourages regional school districts to collaborate statewide, leading professional development from within the schools rather than paying outside consultants.

These suggestions can be accomplished with one-time money for a short period of time. Predictable funding allows for schools to become more resilient and better to take on the unforeseen challenges. I and others have proposed similar policies in the past, but politics failed to consider. Now with one party in control, it is clear to ask why something is done or not. Create policies that take the stress out of running and working in a school environment, and the environment will allow students to thrive.

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