Simplify school funding by freeing more dollars for the classroom

Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra once argued for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education on the premise that it was primarily a jobs program based on the distrust of fellow Americans. After collecting the requisite taxes, Washington returns the money to the states with specific instructions on how it is to be spent. Bureaucrats in the USDOE then spend their days checking up on and auditing the practices and expenditures of the recipient states. State departments of education in turn, and with equal animus, mirror and repeat those exercises with our local school districts. Somewhere along the way, students in classrooms are expected to learn something.

Twenty years ago, Gov. John Engler hired me as his education policy advisor. A year before, in 1994, Michigan had passed Proposal A, the landmark education funding plan which traded local funding autonomy for guaranteed state support. While equitable funding was a stated goal, and the disparity between high and low spending districts has been greatly diminished, parity still remains elusive, and we still have over 150 different foundation allowances! [The amount each school district receives on a per-pupil basis of state and local funds] Remarkably, we spend roughly $20 billion in combined federal, state, and local funds, yet Michigan students have fallen precipitously from the top 20 to the bottom five in reading and math scores among the states that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP tests. Why?

I support the notion that we have lost our focus and attention on student achievement and performance while chasing the latest educational fad and worrying about charter schools, choice, and what others may be receiving in their foundation.

“Handwringing over bullying, nutrition, health, eradicating poverty and pumping up self-esteem (is) all noise”

Harried teachers and administrators are consumed with complying with an ever-changing myriad of rules and reports set by Washington or Lansing, from Goals 2000, to No Child Left Behind, to the current Race to the Top efforts espoused by President Obama, while handwringing over bullying, nutrition, health, eradicating poverty and pumping up self-esteem consume the remainder of the day. It's all noise, so let's begin quieting the room for the real work of passing knowledge onto our children.

Currently the Michigan School Aid Act, which funds K-12 education, is a 212-page prescription with specific sections tied to specific constituencies. It's a lobbyist’s dream, an adult playground of sorts. As the chair of the House School Aid appropriations subcommittee, I'd like to simplify the process by eliminating as many "categoricals" [funds earmarked for specific programs] as possible. Two categoricals I plan to eliminate are Best Practices Incentives (Sec.22f) and District Performance Grants (Sec.22j).

These are prime examples of Lansing trying to improve both financial and academic performance through a mostly "carrot" approach which usually resulted in rewarding schools who were already high flyers in system management, communication, and student achievement.

Both have caused considerable consternation among many school districts and rolled-up would add $125 million more to the foundation. Others, like At-Risk Funding (Sec.31a), need to be tweaked in order to maximize their impact among our most disadvantaged students. We can no longer afford to fund one-off programs that deliver inferior results against more proven strategies. Random acts of excellence must become the rule rather than the exception.

It's important to note that my goal then is to simplify school funding, provide more flexibility and restore local decision making by cutting the strings and providing as much funding directly to the classroom as possible. In doing so, we could remove Lansing as an excuse and restore the focus and interest in student performance.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Chuck Fellows
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:06am
This is an excellent starting point that begins to address the unintentionally dysfunctional funding policy and practice exercised by the State. Representative Kelly's reference to the "adult playground" is deadly accurate. The focus should be learning, not all that other blather. Hopefully Appropriations and the House Education Committee can request information about funding programs in other states that focuses on the needs of the individual student and budget planning at the building level versus the current per pupil headcount/categoricals system legislated at the state level here in Michigan. It is unfortunate that an effort intended to equalize funding, Proposal A, has actually resulted in greater inequality when actual need is identified. The historical flight of capital and population from our urban centers have created centers of economic and learning poverty. Without investment to reverse that path urban Michigan will remain a drag on economic and social progress at an opportunity cost measured in trillions.
David Britten
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:19am
This makes practical sense and provides a better foundation for local districts to serve the various needs of its diverse students and community, as long as funding of the foundation allowance recognizes that students enter the K-12 systems at varying levels of background knowledge, disruptive circumstances in their lives, basic developmental differences, and limited English skills. The one concern about eliminating the "carrots" of the "best practices" and "performance" grants is that in the House school aid proposal for 2015-16, this in effect punishes the districts that were taking the steps to earn these grants the past several years while rewarding the districts that earned a lesser amount or none at all. The net result is that those students who didn't work for the incentives will now receive a higher per pupil amount and the rest will have to work with less funding. It basically says to the Governor and previous legislatures that your whole "carrot" approach was wrong and now we're going to pull the rug out from under the districts who agreed with you and conformed. Once again, the see-saw legislative process in Michigan that is primarily the result of ridiculous term limits leaves winners and losers in the end.
Frustrated Taxpayer
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:24am
Rep. Kelly is proposing to eliminate a couple of carrots and then spread the carrot juice more evenly across districts. I don't disagree with this thought, but it doesn't add funding to the classroom - it simply redistributes the same small amount of money over a greater area. To truly add funding in Michigan classrooms we need to get all of the educators, both current and retired, out of MESSA and into comparable health insurance plans whose premiums are 20% or more less. Although some positive steps have been recently taken, the current system is still for as many educators as possible (I.e. all if you think like the MEA) to have the Rolls Royce of insurance plans. Early outs are offered in many districts for more seasoned, higher paid employees which, coupled with a population that simply lives a bit longer each generation, has created a pool of retired educators that we can't afford to insure. Thus Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature continue to increase K-12 education funding while simultaneously seeing less of that funding reach our classrooms because so much is eaten up by the insurance premiums for an ever increasing, and ever younger, base of retirees. These educators have done nothing wrong and they deserve to be covered in their retirement, but this can be done far more cost-effectively than it is now. Let's give all of our educators, current and retired, a solid health benefit plan at a reasonable cost and put the money saved on premiums into the classroom. The only opposition I've ever encountered to this idea is from the MEA, which I personally consider to be one of the two or three most dangerous organizations in the state and far and away the heaviest ball and chain holding back the educating of Michigan's youth. Whenever a local district begins to consider getting its educators out of MESSA and into something cost efficient, the MEA sends in professional negotiators to hammer out a new agreement with a subset of local school board members. Who do you think wins the vast majority of these negotiations? The MEA and MESSA. And who loses? The students.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:52am
Tim, "Why?" You said from 1994, "Michigan students have fallen precipitously from the top 20 to the bottom five in reading and math scores among the states that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP tests. Why?" I think many of us view this as part of an academic failure that is moving forward and is ongoing. In 1984 we were told, in "A Nation at Risk" report that if a foreign power had done this much damage to eduction in America it would be considered an act of war. That set me to thinking back then, "What foreign power?" In 1994 I read the new state standards that defined the new "Proficiency Test." I read that it was based on Russia's educational technology from the 1920's. The marxist views of S.L.Vygotsky and Stalin. See page 6 of "Society and Mind", by Vygotsky which was listed in the Framework for the new standards as source material. So I think that might have something to do with the "Why?" you are presenting, possibly rhetorically. Back then, 1994, I decided I wanted to do something, so I asked myself, "As a Professional Engineer, how would I do it?" meaning education in Michigan. I sat down and wrote out 10 standards that basically address ways a student could improve his study skills so he could acquire knowledge and skills much more easily. He could read something and do it. So these were true academic standards, rather than behavior standards addressed to Marxist goals as envisioned by Stalin. At least that is the way I felt about the state standards at that time. So my standards addressed the student's abilities and his or her ability to acquire knowledge and skills. The state standards don't. I believe the first answer to your question, "Why?" is that the continuing evolution of state standards really does not effectively address academics. They address a progressive increase in dependency on others rather than a self reliant approach to education. I define "Tyrant" as a person or group that places their ambitions and intentions before those of others. Stalin would be an example of a tyrant. Vygotsky's educational technology is an example where the education of the individual, what the individual wants to do, is replaced by the ambitions and intentions of others. So you get certain academic failure. You get a lot of attention of "bullying" and other anti-social problems. I said then and I am saying now: The state standards are not academic standards. They are not even defined as "standards". My standard number 5 is one definition of standard: "a definite level of quality suitable to a specific purpose." Back then, the state definition was "A statement about quality." Today they have added the idea of comparison. These are not "standards" as we understand them in industry. they weren't in 1984, they weren't in 1994 and they are not today. We could say we want the student "to have the ability to apply what he has learned to things in life." We could state a standard that tests that, like a demonstration. "The student must be able to demonstrate each thing he has learned and how it applies to life." I wish you success in what you say your are trying to do with funding for eduction in Michigan. I hope that will also result in improved academics for the individual and not just more tyranny for all.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:54am
It's heartening to hear Representative Kelly articulate my own long-held concern that trying to keep up with the latest educational fad has replaced teachers' focus on student learning in today's classrooms. I believe that it's this loss of focus that has dragged Michigan to the bottom five NAEP math scores. For example, it's been my observation that the misdirection of focus away from memorizing basic arithmetic facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) in elementary schools has impacted these students' ability to grasp higher-level math concepts in high school and college. If you don't know you multiplication facts, you're going to have a hard time factoring. And if you can't factor number, you're going to be at a disadvantage factoring expressions in algebra, or manipulating equations to isolate variables in physics.
Bob Balwinski
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:00am
Rep Kelly missed a thing or two. True, the School Aid Fund supplies monies to K-12 districts but it has also been tapped to fund some university costs and community colleges and other programs. All the money going......legally, I might these interests help to drain funds that we all thought were meant for ONLY K-12 districts back when MI voters passed Proposal A in 1994. Some flaw in the wording of Proposal A allowed our past governor and our current governor to siphon funds from the School Aid Fund. Superintendents are not happy about this either. Also, Federal money is mainly earmarked to begin with, usually meant for programs to help those with special needs or who need extra help to catch up to grade level. That is why the biggest chunks of Fed money to MI are for special education and for Title I. These dollars were NEVER meant to be used for general operations purposes to begin with and superintendents know this and have complied to Fed rules for the most part. I know Rep Kelly means well and hope other issues get worked out to increase K12 spending beyond the small programs he has mentioned. I know I used my 9 years as a Field Services Consultant for the MDE to explain and assist districts and their staffs understanding earmarked money and how it ties in with services to students as best I could in an ever-changing rules environment.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:50am
30 plus kids in some kindergartens, 30 plus kids in some science classes,etc. Good luck getting them down to reasonable numbers. I know teachers who teach science 9th and 10th grade with 30 plus kids in a class 4 times a day 120 plus each day then change classes every 12 weeks. Try to learn all those names. R/L.
Scott Roelofs
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 9:50pm
I still have my kindergarten roster from 1959-60 at Campbell School, Mona Shores district in Muskegon. Mrs. George had 32 students in morning kindergarten and 33 different students in the afternoon. She knew 65 kids and she was alone in the classroom--no parapros nor aides. In my higher grades, student numbers were sometimes larger. The quality of the education was excellent and the vast majority graduated from high school. Certainly much has changed in our society and culture in 50 years and the decline in education is very complicated. But I don't believe teacher-student ratio is a significant factor at all in the decline.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:07pm
Interesting that another politician has the answers. Here a couple of things to think about. 1) About 20-25% of Michigan kids live in poverty, who knows how many more are just above that threshold. 2) Kids learn differently at different rates. Therefore, the people furthest away from the classroom still think they know how to teach every kid and hope to make it more "efficient". I learned quickly years ago every time the state interferes with the curriculum I teach it gets worse.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 5:40pm
Continually modifying State mandates is a major problem for our schools. Other problems are State leaders raiding the School Aid fund for non K-12 programs and failure to equalize foundation allowances among all schools. And our biggest problem is the proliferation of charter schools. Instead of working with and supporting our traditional public school system, the politicians have decided to systematically rob it of resources for ideological reasons. That's unforgivable.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:17pm
Whenever you have K 12 education for profit BEWARE. They don't in many cases even pay they people a living wage and so many who weren't able to get a job in the public school go there to teach. Many of them are very very good teachers but they are in some case paid as little as 30,000 after 6 or 7 years of teaching. Leave the schools for profit to post secondary schools. R.L.
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 8:10am
They keep changing mandates I believe out of impatience and frustration over a lack of progress so they keep coming up with other ideas that they think will be the magic bullet that will show the results they want to see. You can't legislate a cultural change and get parents and students to care about education any more than they want to, teachers are caught in the middle and most try to do a good job but just end up more and more frustrated.
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 9:35pm
Comment 1: If you think the "real work" is simply about "passing knowledge onto our children" then you're forgetting about the real work that is done to teach them to be independent thinkers and problem-solvers. Students don't receive, integrate and retain information that is dumped into them. They learn when they have choices of what books to read and what projects to research. Comment 2: The foundation funding level should be sure to keep up with rising health care costs and other inflation-related expenses. Any funding of the MPSERS retirement obligations should be done prior to setting the foundation levels, so that this money doesn't just make a round trip back to Lansing. Money that is required to be sent back can't be used for teachers or classrooms, so lawmakers should be careful not to count it as part of a foundation grant. Comment 3: When deciding how many schools there should be in the state, counting districts and charters, consider how many children age 5-17 are expected to live in MI in the next few years. My careful observations and study of the funding trend is that because funding isn't keeping up with inflation, schools must increase enrollment to stay in the black, while our student population state-wide is projected to decline. These two things don't go together. Flat enrollment means getting behind, and losing students starts a death spiral.
William Perkins
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 10:08am
20 plus years to get every district to receive the same per pupil funding is far too long. My children went from preschool now through university with the neighboring school district getting roughly $1000.00 more per pupil. They were always aware of it and so probably won't be back here to live and work.
Big D
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 9:45am
Very insightful. Illuminates another bureaucracy that is more harm than good (independent of the wasted borrowed treasure). On the matter of teaching vs. compliance, once our educators struggle past the complying, they are confronted with teaching useless (actually, worse) stuff like the threat of humanity to gaia ("science"), why the USA is an evil empire ("history"), the scourge of white privelege ("sociology"), etc. One wonders how any kids come out human.
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 1:35pm
If you don't think that size matters at least in education class size you obviously never taught. Add to that some teachers teach split classes. 100 plus kids in front of you everyday and then change the kids and the classes every 12 weeks. get real. Just remember 50 years ago probably 90% of children had two parents at home. Amen. R.L.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 6:41pm
Actually class size does not matter IF all or most of the students are near the same level, with no language barriers or emotional or cognitive disabilities. Of course large class sizes means more drills and multiple choice tests, but that is what they have to master to be successful. After high school, not so much.