School reform push focuses on learning results, not funding buckets

They say great oaks from little acorns grow. Maybe the same thing will happen as a result of last Tuesday’s meeting in Lansing to consider how to re-work the School Aid Act into the "Michigan Education Finance Act of 2013."

The School Aid Act was originally written in 1979. It’s been amended many times since. At 178 pages (with appendices), it is considered “exceptionally opaque," “arcane," “anachronistic” and “incomprehensible," according to various folks I asked.   

But it is also the basic law through which more than $14 billion is annually appropriated for Michigan schools. So fooling around with it is a big deal. Maybe 150 people gathered in Lansing last week to kick off the process. 

It’s almost certain the workings of the act have had a profound impact on the way our schools work. As Richard McLellan*, a highly experienced Lansing lawyer who is overseeing the rewrite, points out in working papers for the meeting, the School Aid Act “is structured around the concept of ‘membership’ in a local school district, whereby a student is essentially treated as the property (and responsibility) of the school district because of the school aid funds that flow to the district through enrollment of pupils in membership."

In practice, the workings of the act have helped construct a system of education that is made up of distinct kinds, each with separate funding streams: early childhood (i.e. pre-kindergarten); regular K-12 schools; community colleges; four-year universities. And, given the zero-sum mentality that drives all money discussions inLansing, whenever one asks for more dough, the rest howl in protest. 

When Gov. Rick Snyder proposed last April in a special message on education a new “Any Time, Any Way, Any Place” public education system, he was suggesting a model in which the state’s per pupil foundation grant not be tied exclusively to the school district a child attends.  That, in turn, leads to the idea of “proficiency-based funding," in which money moves in response to a student’s demonstrated knowledge and skills, regardless of where achieved. 

The obvious question is: If the overall objective is overall student “proficiency," why should education money be allocated into separate pots for early childhood, K-12, community colleges or universities?

This is not a small matter.  Education, in whatever guise, consumes by far the largest share of Michigan taxpayer dollars. 

A more powerful and much clearer way of framing this entire subject is to use the phrase “human capital," suggesting the idea that what we are really doing is investing in each citizen’s stock of knowledge and skills, regardless of what bucket of funds supports it. 

By denominating the discussion in terms of human capital, we achieve two important objectives:

1. We force the discussion into the returns that come from investment. Businesses invest in new factories or new equipment because those investments will yield a return, often over many years. Returns on investments in human capital yield a payoff that is far greater than investments in plant and equipment. For example, research suggests that the payoff from investing in early childhood education is a multiple of 8 to 12.  Kids who participate in early childhood programs are ready to start kindergarten, don’t have to repeat grades in school, are more likely to graduate, more likely to have stable marriages and less likely to wind up on drugs or in prison. 

2. Michigan’s system of investing in our citizens’ human capital should be seamless, that is, it should flow to individuals from birth to early childhood to kindergarten to K-12 school to community college and, where appropriate, to four-year university. The real issue in such a system is what knowledge and skills young people learn as they proceed, not which part of the bureaucracy owns a student at any one time. State Superintendent of Instruction Mike Flanagan made the point at the meeting when he said, “We’ve got to stop arguing who’s stealing whose money. We cannot be boxed in by classifying the source and use of particular funds.”

In his special message on education in April 2011, Gov. Snyder wrote about the idea of a “state education system that integrates all levels of learning." What he’s really talking about is an integrated, coherent system of investing in the human capital of Michigan’s citizens, an investment that will product enormous returns in our state’s future prosperity.

Who knows how the re-write of the School Aid Act will turn out. But it’s a big, big subject that’s vitally important to our future.

* McLellan is a member of the Bridge Magazine Board of Advisers.

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.

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Sam Hagar
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 9:16am
I completely agree with the notion of considering the ROI on the investment in human capital. This suggests, however, the political impossibility of reducing the funding for remedial programs and programs for the mentally challenged for which the ROI is zero. How will such children be managed?
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 12:21pm
The devil is in the details. If there is a re-write of the School Aid Act, it must be done without the usual political shenanigans that permeate all the legislation we have witnessed this last year and a half. Special needs children were shipped to public schools after most state institutions closed. Some special needs children function quite well, equaling or surpassing our state elected officials. Other special needs children benefit from custodial care than really is not a function of public schools. The business model of education breaks down quite quickly, as children are not "units of production" that get treated like commodities on the stock exchange. Business people ought not to stick their noses into endeavors like educating children, for which they have not any expertise and even less regard. Educating a child takes sensitivity and a grasp of the intricacies of the learning process. A child is not a set of numbers or a piece of equipment. Developing human potential is an art and a science that trained professionals have learned through their own formation.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 2:43pm
Mr. Donnelly completely misses the point. It may be true that " Educating a child takes sensitivity and a grasp of the intricacies of the learning process." - but how well that process is done can be measured. The idea is to educate each child as well as possible for the resources invested. That is what the whole discussion is about.
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 1:00pm
“If the overall objective is overall student “proficiency,” …. What an absolutely sickening thought… IF? Good grief. IF that’s really what our public schools’ institutional goal is “student proficiency” then we have so lost sight of the real purpose that we should ALL be sickened by reading such a hypothesis. When we look back at the history of public schools we ought to view the real purpose being centered around building up local communities. We ought to observe that by combining local assets and then distributing them to systems of public schools, families and communities create a legacy of an ongoing united movement to build and rebuild local schools and families and communities generation after generation. I am sickened to think that some in our society have come to conclude that students are nothing more than capital investments whose worth is to be somehow annually measured, again and again over time, with the overall objective being “overall student proficiency.” And as for this - "We force the discussion into the returns that come from investment"... Putting a new suit on an old argument doesn't help; the old argument still stinks: The upper class wants public vouchers so their kids can attend private schools with public dollars. I'm actually willing to listen to an honest argument vouchers or some system where the state aid follows the students, as long as the dollars ultimately fund real public schools, not private or parochial or other religious schools, and most certainly not corporate profiteers' running puppet charter school academies.
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 3:00pm
We can spend all the available money and then some with no more than return we are getting today if the foundation the edcuation system is built on is nothing more than quicksand such the money down. Until we start looking at what the student has to do to become educate no matter what we put into the 'classroom' nothing will change. The student have to have their own reason to learn before the best teach, the best ever school and equippment will ever have an impact on their learn. Its not money, money, moeny. Its student, students, students with a purpose to learn.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 3:05pm
Mr. McLellan puts his finger on the problem when he says, " (T)he School Aid Act “is structured around the concept of ‘membership’ in a local school district, whereby a student is essentially treated as the property (and responsibility) of the school district because of the school aid funds that flow to the district through enrollment of pupils in membership.” School districts grow complacent when they don't have to compete for students. Monopolies traditionally turn out inferior products at inflated prices, and so it is with school districts. Governor Snyder has done much to address this problem with "Schools of Choice" and charter schools. Mr. Powers says, " For example, research suggests that the payoff from investing in early childhood education is a multiple of 8 to 12. Kids who participate in early childhood programs are ready to start kindergarten, don’t have to repeat grades in school, are more likely to graduate, more likely to have stable marriages and less likely to wind up on drugs or in prison. " I am skeptical about the research, at least for all families. As far as the research is valid, it is an indictment of some familiesfor whom the schols servbe as a surrogate parent.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 3:12pm
Bridge would be better off using the "Disqus" system that Michigan Radio uses for their comments, or Facebook. This system, at least for me, does not scroll down properly, and thus requires typing blind.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 07/24/2012 - 6:42pm
Simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic will not address the real needs in education. The iceberg is still there. Before we start playing our silly political games with the money (for that is what it is, a bunch of alleged adults angling for their fair share) we should step back and take a long look at the whole issue of education. If you do you will discover that public education, despite all the so called expert inputs and conflict over money, have done a pretty good job with the resources they have within the constraints imposed by those who know little about learning - please note I said "learning" as distinct from "education" - they are not the same thing. All the standardized testing (which is meaningless), core curriculum, college prep, higher standards, more rigor, relevance and relationships is a bunch of hooey put in place to maintain the superstructure sitting on the hull. The hull has a hole in it below the waterline (thank you W. L. Gore) and a child's desire to learn is what is leaking out. Once that is gone the ship will sink. It is about learning, and every child has their own very unique way of learning (nine different ways is the latest count - thank you Gardner, Goleman, Pestalozzi, Piaget & Dewey) as each individual teacher has their own way of teaching and learning. That's a fact and we all know it but refuse to accept it. How do I know this? Because "education" is all about one size fits all, little widgets sitting quietly absorbing irrelevant content regurgitating it, not always successfully, on demand. Our challenge should not be how to distribute the money - that distribution is the outcome of understanding that the goal is learning, not education, and an environment must be created that allows each child in this state to "LEARN". The design of each individual learning journey will dictate the distribution of the money. The only way our so called leaders are going to understand that is by listening to the people that actually do the work - the students and the teachers. They will tell you what works, how you know that it works and help you coach and mentor them on their journey. Really long term successful business have learned to listen to the people that do the work. In Finland the bureaucrats have learned to listen to the people that do the work. Why won't we listen to the people that do the work? Some wisdom from a business person - "There's no such thing as instant pudding. Read the box." J.K. Bakken. Some to listen to -,,, ( no curriculum at all).
Chuck Jordan
Wed, 07/25/2012 - 9:53pm
The business model creates winners and losers. Kids are the losers. Prisons will be the winners.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 07/26/2012 - 11:08am
Having Mr. McLellan on the board of advisors for The Center ... makes me wonder how you can call yourselves "centrist?"
Fri, 07/27/2012 - 1:06pm
My kids had a few very good teachers, a few very bad teachers and many fair to midlin teachers. I wish they were all very good. They attended both public and private schools; in terms of the quality of the teachers, there were no overall differences. The quality of teachers is, as in all professions, a bell curve. In some cases we, as parents, were able to skew the curve; some of the schools allowed us to choose our teachers. With much research over a very long period (sometimes years) we were able to zero in on the best teachers for our kids. It's not the bureaucracy, whether the school is public or private, the mandated curriculum, standardized testing, the school principle, counselors, the superintendent nor the school board that make the difference; it's plain and simple the quality of the teacher and the ability of the kid and teacher to gel. Not enough credit is given the non academic side of school. Kids are influenced by other kids; when a kid's peers have high standards, this raises the boat for everyone. A school that isn't safe is a problem. Lousy food at the cafeteria makes a difference. Too hot or too cold classrooms make a difference. Cleanliness makes a difference. Lack of exercise makes a difference. A two hour bus ride to and from school makes a difference. All the extra curricular activities make a difference. A friend once advised her college freshman child to not let the books get in the way of your education. The friend had a point, there's a lot more going on at a school than just school and these factors may equal the value of the instruction. I think improvements are needed in education, but I'm not ready for a wholesale change. First, the attacks on public teachers has to stop; we gain nothing by doing this and I think we're demoralizing them and discouraging the best from becoming teachers. We need more information about individual teachers; as a parent, I want to see their evaluations; all parents should always have the option of requesting individual teachers for their kids; unrequested teachers are your stinkers and need to find a new profession. We grossly underfund colleges and something major has to be done to correct this problem; way too many very talented kids can't go to college because they just can't afford it. Schools must be safe, clean, reasonably comfortable and well maintained. Exercise and extra curricular activity need to be plentiful at all levels. Some k-12 schools have community colleges, university centers and universities in the community. In addition to the option for AP classes, kids should be allowed to take classes at colleges while in high school and substitute the college class for the high school class; and, k-12 funds should be used to pay for these classes. Many communities have multiple schools, for example, a mix of public and private schools or multiple public schools. I would have loved to have had the option of choosing the best teachers from this collection of schools for my kids and have them attend all of them. One of my kids is dyslexic. She reads at about half normal speed. She can't spell worth beans. She often sees words that aren't there when she reads aloud. She's just terrible at standardized tests, primarily I think because she can't read fast enough and there's a time limit on all of them. However, she took the toughest courses available in high school and college and aced nearly all of them. She reads nearly all day long and can't get enough of it. She recently was awarded a B.S. in a very tough math/science program. She loves school and excels at it. The lesson she taught me was: don't pay a lot of attention to standardized test results.