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

Gretchen Whitmer contends that the constitutional purpose of state school aid money is that it should go to K-12 schools, and not be siphoned off to higher education spending.

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.…”

Gretchen Whitmer
The Call
Mostly Inaccurate

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.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 07/20/2018 - 9:30am

Was there not over 200 schools in the past two to three years that closed thinks to no money!!!!

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 9:31am

Very clear treatment of the issue

Bob Balwinski
Fri, 07/20/2018 - 10:19am

Your final paragraphs say it all. Folks "thought" Proposal A was for K-12 schools as that was how it was sold to the voters. Nobody mentioned the tie-bar to an amendment that said monies could go to higher education, etc.. In my view, voters were not uninformed but rather misinformed.

Chuck Fellows
Fri, 07/20/2018 - 11:14am

Politicians repeated failure to address the root cause, how the funds are used, not how to use the funds. The system of education in Michigan refuses to acknowledge that relying on a centuries old structure and practice is out of step with the learning needs of our society. So instead of being serious about learning they play games with taxpayers dollars, to the point of misfeasance in office. Our children pay the price for their cognitive neglect.

Steven Norton
Fri, 07/20/2018 - 9:12pm

It’s true that language from the 1963 constitution was retained, and that diversion of School Aid Fund money to higher ed is not a violation of the constitution. But the voters weren’t just imagining things. Hard-coded into the School Aid Act (MCL 388.1620§11) is language requiring the semi-annual Consensus Revenue Estimation Conference to calculate a figure which is supposed to guide the Legislature in determining the following year’s per-pupil funding levels. That calculation takes the estimated growth of the entire SAF - not just some portion of it - and divides by the projected public school enrollment to arrive at a guideline for changes in the foundation allowance. (The Legislature is free to ignore this, as they have every year since Prop A.) But what is significant is that this provision, added as part of the school funding overhaul of 1994, does not foresee that the SAF would be used for anything other than K-12 education. Until FY 2012, that had been true except for one emergency measure under Gov Granholm. Under Gov Snyder, use of increasing amounts of the SAF to fund higher education (including the entire state community college budget) has been a hallmark of every school aid budget he has proposed or signed. In fact, early drafts of the FY 2012 budget would have renamed the SAF so as to blur the earlier commitment.

This is not a question of constitutional law; it’s a question of what our lawmakers promised the people of Michigan.

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 9:11am

Hmmm. No matter how dumb of an idea it is to put spending/legislative issues into the constitution, I always thought that that Gretch and the Left contend that we have a "living" constitution? Does it now only "live" where she wants it to?

Laurel Raisanen
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 4:28pm

I was serving on a school board at that time and advocated Proposal A because my district had reached the 50 mill limit and no change in sight. After the dust settled and Proposal A became law my attention focused on things other than public education. When my interest peaked again in 2004, I was shocked to see the charter school agreement language and then, when Snyder moved all the school aid monies to colleges and universities to pay for the business tax give away, I learned this lesson. The republicans have used and abused us long enough. If Whitmer is stating the school aid fund should go to k-12 education it's alright by me. That's what we voted for...NOT colleges and university funding.

Tue, 01/22/2019 - 2:22pm

Until 2010 that is how the School Aid Fund was used. Politicians knew full well the intent of the language. When Granholm diverted $200 million, it was seen as a short term loan that was to be repaid once the state economy recovered.
It was never repaid and then Republicans perverted the entire process. So what if the language is such that an argument can be made to raid the fund? SO WHAT? It was an unethical, immoral choice by Republicans and nothing will change that fact. Disgusting excuses by people with a broken moral compass.

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 6:58pm

For decades, common understanding and agreement among Democrats and Republicans was that the School Aid Fund was for K - 12 education only. Then along came a group of GOP Geniuses (who alone we’re able to decipher legal documents) and opened up the fund to higher education. History and common sense calls BS. Republicans devastated the state budget with their Voodoo Economics and then kicked off their great Con, plugging massive monetary holes by stealing from this fund.