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Truth Squad | Gretchen Whitmer says school aid money only meant for K-12

August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor

As Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer rolled out her plan for education in May, she underlined her long-standing concern over how school aid funds are being used in Michigan. The issue: Since 2010, more than $3.6 billion in school aid has gone to the state’s community colleges and public universities. Whitmer argues, including on her website, that school aid money should go solely to Michigan’s K-12 schools, which she argues is the fund’s “intended constitutional purpose.”

Whitmer’s position echoes a complaint that K-12 advocates have raised for years, one worth checking against the fine print of history.

We rate the claim MOSTLY INACCURATE – based on the what the state constitution actually says.

The claim:

“Keep School Aid Fund money in K-12 and restore the School Aid Fund to its intended constitutional purpose.”

The facts:

The school aid fund - about $12.5 billion in 2017-18, is the primary source of revenue for Michigan’s public school districts,comprising about 70 percent of all revenue sources for K-12 schools.

But to understand the fight over how it’s disbursed, it’s essential to review events of  the early 1990s ‒ when it became clear to state policymakers that Michigan’s K-12 funding system was broken. Back then, schools relied for the most part on local property taxes to fund district needs. Rich districts generally fared well. But poor districts struggled to balance their budgets as voters repeatedly turned down property tax hikes.

In 1993, Kalkaska Public Schools thrust Michigan into an uncomfortable national spotlight when it shut down two months early because it couldn’t otherwise meet expenses. That followed an overwhelming rejection by voters of a proposed 28 percent property tax hike.

By 1994, lawmakers had a plan: Trade a steep cut in local property taxes for a 2-cent increase in the state sales tax, with the extra revenue to go to schools on a more even basis. The general understanding at the time was that this fund was about fixing K-12 schools. The 2-cent sales tax hike would have to be approved by voters as a constitutional amendment. The legislative alternative was a hike in the income tax.

Whitmer spokesman Zack Pohl pointed Truth Squad to a 1994 United Press International account on the eve of the March 15, 1994 vote that stated: “The Proposal A referendum ‒ the third of its kind in two years ‒ will determine whether sales tax or income tax goes up to pay for educating 1.6 million public school students (Emphasis Truth Squad’s).”

Indeed, the Proposal A ballot language before voters said that it would “dedicate additional revenue to schools.” Nearly 70 percent of voters said yes to the tax hike.

So Whitmer is right, right?

Not exactly.

What many (understandably) forget is that this ballot measure was tie-barred to a constitutional amendment that does not limit school aid to K-12. It retains language from the 1963 constitution that states that the fund is “exclusively for aid to school districts, higher education, and school employees' retirement systems.”

Those two words – “higher education” – show that the school aid fund is available under the state constitution for college and universities as well as K-12 schools.

In 2010, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm used school aid money to send $208 million to higher education. Whitmer opposed the move, just as she voted against every education budget as a state senator that sent school aid funds to higher education.

Pohl, the Whitmer spokesman, noted that Whitmer is not alone in how she characterizes the purpose of school aid money. He referred Truth Squad to a March article quoting GOP State Rep. Dave Pagel of Berrien Springs, who said: “I would like to see us honor the intent of the voters and the authors of that legislation (Proposal A) and use the school aid fund for K-12 education.”

In 2011, a member of the Michigan Association of School Boards made a similar point: “You take a look at the ballot language. It never mentions higher education; it never mentions community colleges; it mentions schools.”

Pohl also takes the position that Whitmer is not claiming that the constitution only allows school aid money to be used for K-12 schools. Whitmer is instead “making a rhetorical argument here that this is what we COULD and SHOULD be doing as a state...”

But in 2012, Whitmer said just that, joining a protest statement on the Senate floor that said in part: “The School Aid Fund was voter-established and constitutionally protected through Proposal A to specifically and only direct money to K-12 programs.…”

Mostly Inaccurate
Gretchen Whitmer

Whitmer can reasonably argue that voters believed they were voting on a measure to solve a K-12 funding crisis when they approved Proposal A. That’s how many politicians framed it. That’s how much of the media reported it. Even the ballot language itself says Proposal A would “dedicate additional revenue to schools.” These are all valid points.

But the fact remains the amendment voters approved does not restrict school aid funds to K-12. It allows for higher education funding as well. Nitpicky or not, voter intent or not, it cannot accurately be said that K-12 funding alone was the fund’s “intended constitutional purpose.”

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