Time for a fresh look at how we fund our public schools

Rob Fowler

Rob Fowler is president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The School Finance Research Collaborative, a broad-based, bipartisan group of business and education experts from metro Detroit to the U.P., applauds Grand Rapids philanthropist Jim Brooks and other business leaders for proposing ways to prepare Michigan students for the competitive 21st century workforce.

In a recent edition of Bridge, Brooks makes the case that we must help prepare all Michigan public school students for college and careers.

We agree, but that process must begin with a comprehensive look at how we fund our public schools so all students can achieve and succeed, no matter their challenges or circumstances.

The way we fund Michigan’s schools is broken, and we must reexamine our approach to provide a high-quality education to all Michigan public school students. The Collaborative, whose members agree it’s time to change our school funding, is taking the lead in this effort.

We are bringing together top industry experts to analyze that funding, with the intention to better serve all students, regardless of their location, income, race or other circumstances.  

Policymakers need the best, most complete and accurate information on what it truly costs to educate all students. Our group is supporting a new, comprehensive school-funding adequacy study that will use multiple methodologies.  

The new study will build on the findings of the state-funded Michigan Education Finance Study released last summer and give us a truly comprehensive look at school financing. We have begun the process of hiring a contractor to provide this first-of-its-kind analysis of school financing in Michigan and expect the results by early 2018. Once accurate and comprehensive data are available, the Collaborative will communicate this critical information to Michigan policymakers, stakeholders and the public at large.

Schools need a plan and a roadmap for success, just like businesses. That journey begins with the best and most reliable data on how to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. A truly comprehensive adequacy study is the first step toward meeting this goal.  

Michigan’s small-business community relies on our public schools to prepare students for jobs, technical education and college so they are primed for success and ready to enter the workforce, regardless of their background or circumstances. In business, we continually see how strong schools mean strong small businesses every day. We must recruit top-notch talent to grow our businesses and fill the cutting-edge jobs of tomorrow.

It’s important to build and attract the talent of the future and build Michigan’s workforce from the ground up, brick by brick, student by student.

We must prepare all students for jobs and bright futures to continue Michigan’s economic comeback and create the jobs of tomorrow right here in the Great Lakes State.

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.


Fri, 04/21/2017 - 5:31pm

Most likely the legislature will just shrug their shoulders at any recommendation and do nothing. It seems like we have been down this road before in some capacity and it just
leads nowhere.

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 6:12am

Some comments: it seems business is always looking for someone to train employees for their specific job. Gone are the apprentice programs, the company run institutes, and the in-house training programs. And when the educational requirements for a job change, or the employee is judged as making too much money, the companies are too quick to put employees out the door and look for another more exactly trained or less expensive candidate.

I don't like the phrase "adequacy funding". In my mind they are saying how big a pot of money can we extract from the taxpayer. Has anyone ever seen a tax rate decrease?

One of the biggest mistakes is that we do not train people to change. Today, people may have to reinvent themselves several times over their work career. Those that can change will be successful. Those that can not will become a welfare burden on the workers.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 6:41pm

It is difficult for companies to provide training because they have no assurance that the individual, once trained, will remain in their employ. At least as far as K-12 education goes, education must be financed by the taxpayer. That does not mean that the government has to do the actual educating. Students going to college or technical school should finance a significant share of the cost because they will be receiving the benefits of the education.

Chuck Fellows
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 7:51am

Our children should have the opportunity to prepare for their future, not the future we anticipate for them. Our expectations are getting in the way of learning.

The cost of supporting an individual learning is what it is, not a formulaic approach that benefits generally accepted accounting practices or some bureaucratic pro forma searching for equitable allocation of funds to a process that is infinite in its' variability.

Base funding on the individual as developed within the individual's life context as determined by teachers and local staff with the support of external resources. The "cost" is a moveable target that requires attention at the individual and local level, not within the confines of a conference room in Lansing populated by so called "experts" in school finance.

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 8:47am

Not to mention our predictions for future opportunities rarely turn out as anticipated ... if you can get kids to follow your advice in the first place!

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 9:10am

The purpose of schools is not solely to train workers. Schools value should not be viewed only as a source of workers.
Schools do seek to train all students to fulfill their human potential.( Not all students are capable of four year college). Schools do allow us to pass our culture and democratic ideals to the next generation. We do seek a much broader training for our citizens than just entry into the workforce.

Paul Jordan
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 9:13am

The way that we fund schools in Michigan is certainly a subject that deserves attention, and the planned scrutiny might help. Or might not. The Education Trust Midwest (https://midwest.edtrust.org/) has already examined how the state of Michigan 'supports' its school system, and clearly identified why Michigan children's achievement levels are so abysmal (and worse over time) than those of children in Massachusetts and a few other exemplary states.
It is not a mystery.
The other point I'd like to make is that part of the problem is the notion--apparently shared by Mr. Fowler--that the purpose of public education is to train future workers. We need to realize, now more than ever, that the role of public education is to produce adults who are prepared to play productive roles in society (whether paid or unpaid) and are able to fulfill their roles as citizens of our republic.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 6:27pm

It is unfortunate that Mr. Jordan failed to provide the answer to the "mystery" of why our students do so poorly compared to some other states. I have very limited confidence in Education Trust Midwest.

And he failed to say anything significant in his paragraph about the purpose of schools. When you have prepared students to play "productive roles in society", you have trained them to economically productive. That is, trained them to be future workers.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 6:54pm

As I recall, Bridge did some calculations based on the Michigan Education Finance study and concluded that, to raise our scores by one percentage point would require several billion additional dollars. I'm curious as to whether Mr. Fowler has conducted a survey of Michigan voters to gauge their willingness to sharply raise their taxes.

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 10:54pm

That would only be true if spending other people's money is the goal.

The reality is it wouldn't take any more spending if the student wanted to raise their score 1,2, 10 %. It would only take a bit of time and personal effort.

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 2:04pm

I am really curious why everything for you comes down to "spending other people's money" as an issue. As citizens of this state we have an obligation for funding schools and all of the data points to the fact that Michigan is in the very last tier for education outcomes in this country.

Your argument is always the same and I never see any solutions Duane. Where did you go to elementary school and who paid for it?
Michigan used to have exemplary schools, when there was collaboration and expertise creating solutions. Now it is just a bunch of incompetent, spoiled little boys doing this, always afraid something will be taken away from them. Get with it and think about the future.

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 9:56pm

You must admit that it is very easy the toss around a bunch of theories and trendy ideas when someone else is paying the bill. Further that there kids who do exceptionally well from low spending school and poorly from high spending schools. Given we live in a world of unlimited wants and unlimited desires wouldn't being a stickler for measurement and evaluation make sense?

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 3:53pm


Measures and evaluations means people care about results and are willing to risk their thoughts and practices to change. When it comes to money, especially other people's more, that is a very high barriers to allow for accountability.

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 3:50pm

I went to school in western Wayne County, in a cement block building [on the wrong side of the River in a neighborhood called ‘shanty town’ then and now. The community paid for the teachers and staff, but the students did the learning.
What I saw and was part of was in the same classroom we had some kids succeed, some fail, and the rest of us in between. That was when I start understanding that with the same teacher, the same system that the difference was dependent on the students and what they wanted. I was in between because I wasn’t interested and the kids I hung out with weren't interested. The amount of money spent had no impact on the results all the way through graduation. The pattern of in between was interrupted periodically for individuals such as me based on the interest a subject triggered. I did well in a class here or there as others did. The reality was there was no more spending when I did well or when I did poorly, because my added effort was due to me, on the teacher.
I don't offer a solution because the world has changed since then, but as best I can tell the patterns in the classroom of success and failure and in between still exists. What I would encourage to be done to change results is to start with or at least include the students in the efforts to find new means in engaging students interest, expectations, and willingness to actually study.
Why I am so consistently challenging those who’s first and foremost focus is money, other people's money, is because they don’t mention results that the spending should deliver or accountability for achieving results [not blaming but the process of improvement]. The other consistent theme in my comments is that there are students in every setting that succeed and yet neither you nor any others seem to recognize them as micro experiments in learning. Neither you nor any other seems to wonder why they succeed, how they succeed, if their success has lessons or methods that could be used by others. I learned in my career of working with people that when you find success you stop and listen to why and how they are succeeding and then try to replicate it with others. When that replication succeeds then you offer it to more people.
I recall that in the past when I have asked you a question about classroom experience you didn’t respond, this seems true of others with teaching experience, I wonder why. Is because you wonder about my ‘credentials’/experience, my political leanings, my or my families academics results.
There are two common themes I see in the comments and articles on education, especially K-12, is money without accountability and top down education. A foundation belief I have is that learning is a bottom up process, it is determined by the individual student and not by the adults ‘educating’ them.
What I have learned is that people who more interested in achieving results will question/challenge others to hear their perspective [a slightly different perspective can unlock a whole new way of thinking about a problem], hear different ideas/approaches, to listen to concerns and the why and how.
My approach is very simple, if you aren’t getting the results you want then you have to change what/how you are doing to get those results. It the results are dependent on the individual then you have to include the individual in the process and the solution.
The most disappointing thing about Bridge [though I am ever hopeful] is that there are no conversations to solving a/the/this problem. People who want more money never ask why people are resistant to spending more money, never ask about what results people want and why.
I care about results, I know the value and impact learning can have, and I believe everyone can succeed, because I live on the wrong side of the River, by school was cement block, and the my community paid for the teachers and the supporting system, but the learning was up to me [and I failed regardless of spending]. For my whole career whenever I had to ask for other people’s money my employer always start with what results will this deliver, once we agreed on the expected results then the focused moved how will we know the results are being delivered [performance metrics], and then we would talk about money how it would be spent and how much was needed. When you start with results, you have to focus on how to achieve those results, when you start with money then the emphasis becomes how to spend the money, results becomes an one by the way after the money is [spent].
I hope you want to have a conversation, because I believe the better solution come from a team with different perspectives. I encourage direct and point challenges/questions because that is what will make me pause and think and consider change.

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 12:51am

Am I the only one who felt that when Proposal A of 1994 passed that we one one day be looking at local millage elections for local public school funding again? When the state took over funding operating expenses for all Michigan school districts the state knew what the cost would be and they would decrease the disparity in funding between school districts. Well, we have seen the result of the state funding public schools and we have seen the result of the state controlling under performing schools districts. I think one thing Proposal A lacked was a funding guarantee, funding would rise and/or fall as the amount of property tax revenue generated.

2008 created a devastating funding problem for everyone who rely property values for millage revenue, yet when times were good it seemed the legislature would do almost anything with the funds generated from the property tax revenue except increase funding for the public schools.

Another thing that hinders the money that reaches the student's is there is no funding formula placed upon the school districts; it's a battle between the administration, the staff, operating expenses and the students for the funds. It seems the more the administration can squeeze out of compensating the teacher's, operating expenses and student supplies, the more money for administration salaries.

Dr. Mike Shibler
Wed, 04/26/2017 - 11:45am

Excellent comments from Bridge readers. Daryl's comments are right on! For the past 8 years, Michigan's lawmakers have transferred $400 million each year, from the School Aid Fund (SAF) to the General Fund (GF), because the GF was not producing the needed revenues to meet its obligations. With the passage of Proposal A in 1992, it was never the intent to transfer any revenue from the SAF to the GF. Never! For over 40 years, the SAF revenues were for K-12 only! That $400M is equivalent to $300 per child, statewide. For 2017-18, our lawmakers are proposing to transfer $600M from the SAF to the GF. That number is equivalent to $400 per child, statewide. An excellent beginning point for this study, and our legislators, is to stop transferring millions from the SAF to the GF. Dr. Mike Shibler, supt., Rockford Public Schools.

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 7:36pm

I'm not sure what is unique or fresh in any of this, seems everything above only considers that we maintain and finance the old, stale, and often racist approach of school assignment by zip code.

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 6:52am

We need to follow other States / Counties that exempt Senior Citizens from paying School Portion of Property taxes especially for Seniors that never had any children. Michigan was just rated the 10th Highest State for Property Taxes (source tax policy center- fed smith newsletter).....then we wonder why Michigan's population has been dropping or stagnant at best.