There was a lot of education news last week -- much of it grim, and all of it indicating that this state needs to make big changes. Pronto.
First of all, The Education Trust-Midwest, a statewide policy organization, released a new report that showed academic achievement among Michigan’s higher-income and white students has declined when compared with similar kids in other states. This is highly significant, as much of the debate over school performance has centered on low-income and minority students.
This study showed that Michigan students of all sorts have lost ground since 2003. African-American students ranked last in fourth grade reading among the 45 states that reported in 2011.
But fourth grade math scores for white students, are also 45th, having fallen from 13th in the country just eight years previously. Reading scores are only slightly better, and now 35th nationally.
The Education Trust report concludes, “While our state has taken a few bold steps in the past year to improve our education system, our students still lag far behind their peers nationally, and the performance gaps between them -- across income levels and race -- are both alarming and persistent.”
Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust, remains hopeful. “Our children in Michigan are no less bright and full of potential than the children of other states. The problem isn’t them. It’s us, the adults of Michigan. We need to do better.”
Arellano’s words echoed -- far more politely -- a conversation I had last week with an old friend with extensive experience in both state government and business: “Dammit! We need to have a serious and direct conversation about schools in this state. While the adults are quarrelling and playing games, we’re screwing the kids. I’m thinking it’s time we just blew up the whole system!”
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 was released on the same day as the Education Trust report. It drew the predictable reactions, praise from Republicans; criticism from Democrats. But an analysis from Mitch Bean at Bridge Magazine produced a rumpus:
“Let’s start with the way funding for K-12 was described,” wrote Bean, an economist and a well-respected former head of the House Fiscal Agency. “The description in the budget document is that the recommendation for FY 2013 is a 2.5 percent increase, and the ‘planning budget’ for 2014 is a 0.8 percent increase."
But, he added, “the problem with that description is, when you add up what the figures (are) for this year, for FY 2013 and FY 2014, total spending for K-12 declines from $12.74 billion in 2012 to $12.69 billion for 2012 -- and declines again to $12.6 billion in FY 2014.”
He noted: “It will be interesting to watch the reaction when the school lobby figures out that the recommendation for a ‘2.5 percent increase’ in K-12 actually means a small cut in spending.”
Bean will doubtlessly be right about that. However, there’s another part of the education budget I find more interesting: Performance funding. The governor wants to tie increases in student learning with bonus funding for schools that perform well.
Though this has never been tried in any serious way, it makes complete sense. Traditionally, we’ve concentrated on the worst performing schools and thrown money at them or, as present policy calls for, moved them into a separate school district.
Mike Flanagan, Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction, was enthusiastic about the idea of rewarding better-performing schools. “The key to this budget is performance funding applied to every kid. We’ve developing fair metrics for student growth in multiple measures for all our schools. Superintendents are starting to look at this funding and figuring out what it takes to get some.
“This is bonus, not a penalty. It could be a game-changer, and we’re the first in the country to do it.”
No one should get too excited yet. The precise way in which school districts will be evaluated have not yet been developed. Nor is it clear exactly how much money will be subject to performance bonuses. The devil, as always, is bound to be in the details.
But you have to hope that Flanagan is right. Tolerating continued deterioration in student learning – regardless of race of income – is simply unacceptable for a state struggling to compete.
And there’s little doubt that if the performance funding incentives in the governor’s budget doesn’t play out and pay off over the next few years, there will be even greater pressure.
Pressure, that is, to do nothing less than what my friend suggested: Blow the whole system up and start all over again.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.