Study offers financial, policy road map for Michigan education reform

Tight budgets likely are stunting learning in Michigan classrooms. And while there are policy steps that can help, Michigan won’t become a top-10 education state without changes in state funding and more cooperation among groups with a stake in public education in Michigan.

That’s the conclusion of an exhaustive analysis of Michigan’s public schools conducted by Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan public policy research firm in Lansing. The report makes wide-ranging recommendations for turning around Michigan’s schools, offering an education reform road map for policymakers that begins with home visits for newborns and continues through expanded college advising initiatives.

Released today but provided to Bridge for review earlier, the report mixes an array of policy proposals with a sobering portrait of a school system hobbled by state funding that hasn’t kept up with inflation, and political leaders and interest groups that haven’t found common ground for the type of far-reaching reform taking place in other states.

“We’ve made recommendations that would move Michigan forward,” said Jeff Guilfoyle, vice president of Public Sector Consultants and one of the authors of the report. “But if you’re talking about moving Michigan to a top 10 state, that’s probably going to cost more money.”

[Disclosure: For eight years, Public Sector Consultants has provided policy research and public engagement consulting services to the nonprofit Center for Michigan, the parent company of Bridge Magazine. Bridge and the Center had no role in the creation of the PSC report. And PSC had no role in the writing of this article.]

Highlights of the report, which can be read in its entirety here, include the following findings:

State funding levels dropped as teacher retirement costs rose

In 2000, Michigan ranked 10th in the nation in per-pupil funding. Today, per-pupil funding has dropped to 25th in the nation. Meanwhile, the amount spent per pupil on teacher retirement costs nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, after inflation was taken into account. The net result, according to the study: the money actually available to school districts for classroom operations, after adjusting for inflation and subtracting retirement costs, is 12 percent lower today than it was in 2005. (To return school funding to adjusted 2005 levels would require another $1.5 billion in the education budget)

And then student learning dropped. Coincidence?

During the same time money available to classrooms was dropping, Michigan student achievement was falling behind other states, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card.

School funding is a politically polarizing subject, Guilfoyle admits. “There’s always the question of how efficient schools spend their money,” Guilfoyle said. “Even if you believe they were somewhat bloated in the beginning, given the amount of fiscal pressure we’ve put on schools over a 10-year downturn, to think it has had no negative impact on falling (state academic) rankings … is unrealistic.”

It’s not all about money. The report makes numerous recommendations that its authors say will improve student learning but don’t involve raiding Fort Knox. Such as ….

Getting to kids early to make a difference

The study praises the expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s high-quality, state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The $130 million expansion, championed by Gov. Rick Snyder and chronicled by Bridge Magazine, was the biggest preschool expansion in the nation.

The report recommends home visitations that link new parents with trained service providers (such as a nurse or social worker), a proposal that is included in new early childhood funding in the 2016 budget.

The report also recommends more funding for high quality child care through the Child Development and Care program, and high-quality, state-funded preschool for low-income 3-year-olds.

Fair, strong teacher evaluation

The report recommends strong teacher evaluations, suggesting that after “six years working to improve the educator evaluation system, including several years researching and piloting evaluation tools,” it was time for Michigan to “provide local districts and teacher with certainty” about evaluation expectations. The Legislature is still debating a final teacher evaluation bill.

A key to successful evaluations is consistent and reliable training for evaluators, which will require state funding, according to PSC.

Change the school funding formula

The most far-reaching reform suggested in the report is a revamp of Michigan’s school funding formula, which currently is based primarily on a simple per-student allotment. The report suggests the state allocate more funding for students whose education generally costs more, such as low-income and special education students and students for whom English is a second language. The report also suggests providing more money for high schools, with their expensive science programs and athletic departments, would help make school funding more equitable.

Bridge wrote about the school equity funding debate last year.

This seems like a radical idea in Michigan, but it’s actually quite common. Thirty-five states weight their funding formulas for low-income students, students with a disability, students learning English, or a combination of those factors.

How much does it cost to educate a child in Michigan? Nobody really knows. But Michigan may know soon. A bill passed in December requires the state to conduct a comprehensive study to determine the amount of money needed per pupil to provide an education needed to meet Michigan’s academic standards. So-called “adequacy studies” are not terribly popular with Republicans, however, and there is some movement to repeal the adequacy study legislation before its findings are completed.

College, college, college

More kids would enroll, and succeed, in college with a few policy tweaks, PSC argues.

Michigan high schools need more counselors, and more counselors trained to offer advice on college. The state ranks 45th in the ratio of students to counselors. In most schools, counselors do not have the time, nor often the training, to provide college counseling. The report recommends an increase in counselors to address the issue.

Bridge wrote about a slightly different option this March: placing college advisors in every high school.

The report urges school districts to offer more opportunities to earn college credit while still in high school. “Early college credit attainment can also help significantly reduce students’ costs for college,” PSC writes.

Not much will happen without cooperation

So far, Michigan leaders haven’t coalesced around a set of reforms.

“Too often, education policymaking in Michigan appears to be a zero sum game with special interests fighting for limited resources,” the report states. “The overall goal of improving the education (of) our children is easily lost in a battle between vested interests.”

Massachusetts, often described as having the best K-12 system in the nation, turned around its schools beginning in 1993 with the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Tennessee, once near the bottom among the nation’s school systems, now has the fastest-growing test scores in the country. Tennessee’s turnaround began in 2009 when the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), working closely with a powerful coalition of business, education, union and community leaders, developed rigorous academic recommendations for state schools.

“The reality is that Michigan is far more likely to be successful if all of the key players are unified in trying to achieve a common goal and vision aimed at improving the education of our children” the report concludes.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 06/25/2015 - 8:25am
I'm not optimistic anything meaningful will happen as long as there is an "us vs. them" relationship between the legislature and the teachers. Everyone has to be on the same page and that is not happening, there is only a superficial window dressing kind of working relationship with a lot of distrust under the surface.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 11:06am
College, College, College. No, No , No! 3.7 million skilled jobs going begging, 600,000 of those in manufacturing and PSC is pushing college? Duh? A trillion dollars in student debt with terms and conditions worse that payday loans. PSC is pushing college? Diploma holders cannot find meaningful work. And so on and so forth. A vocation versus a diploma or as we call it today, CTE. Real work, have a skill; real debt, have a diploma! Pick one. Retirement funding. The people WE elected negotiated in good faith and agreed to fund a retirement program to offset wage increases. That was 1995. Sad story, those we elected chose not to fund our promises to teachers and now our children are paying for it. Hmmmmm . . . Eighteen months and fourteen million dollars and we have a proposed teacher evaluation system that will require millions more in teacher and evaluator training. The private sector has already tried and rejected similar evaluation schemes because they don't work. How much does it cost to require every supervisor/manager of twelve people or less to reflect for fifteen minute every day an make note of their interactions that day with those they supervise? Lets see , a piece of paper, a number two pencil with eraser, about five hours a month and a focus on and sharing with the people that actually do the work. A week and a half compensation plus some change - each year for supervisors/managers of twelve or fewer direct reports. Benefit - it works and way more. School funding - agree, base funding on individual student need but that will require moving the budget development task to the point in the system where the work actually gets done - the teacher! Building by building developed budgets supported by all those who developed budgets in the past. It also requires that elected officials listen to and abide by the decisions made by teachers. It's called trust. Keep in mind that a budget is a plan, not an absolute. Finally, those other states, where did they start? Advice from a successful system of education - don't copy, adapt success to your culture (i.e. context). Who said that - why it was Pasi Sahlberg from Finland.
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 1:33pm
Chuck, Why wasn't the MEA screaming bloody murder as the unfunded pension situation went on and on? Did they figure they would be able to have their cake and eat it too?
Jeff Salisbury
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 3:22pm
From the 2014 Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (most recent) audit... 1. Fund Assets exceeded liabilities by $47.3 billion 2. Fund Additions (to the fund) totaled $9.9 billion dollars ($3.4 billion in contributions & $6.5 billion in dividends) 3. Fund Deductions (payouts) were $5.6 billion
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 1:09pm
While there are about $45 billion in assets in MPSERS, MPSERS also has about $40 billion in unfunded liabilities which have been discounted at a very generous 8% rate. Its also currently paying out $5 billion a year in benefits. That's far above a normal distribution rate of about 5-6% for a non-closed plan and points to very serious problems with respect to future plan stability. A key point in the report is that the liability discount rate assumed of about 8% is far higher than the 4.5% to 5% assumed by private plans. This means that the unfunded liabilities are probably understated. They will continue to increase in the future as they are recognized. The burdens on the taxpayers and the schools will also increase.
David Waymire
Fri, 06/26/2015 - 4:53pm
College, college, college...YES YES YES... Data is clear: The positive value of a four year degree vs a 2 year has never been higher, financially and in terms of employment opportunities. Click on this link and see the DATA, not the anecdots.'s a reason there are so many "skilled trades" jobs going begging. We pay, for instance, welders LESS in Michigan today than we did in 2006. That's before considering inflation. The bottom line: I'd like to know who reading this is telling their kid "skip college, get a factory job." Seems to me it's always someone else's kid who is being told they shouldn't aspire to the middle class by getting a four year degree. Never your own..
Sun, 06/28/2015 - 8:19am
And in this morning's paper, yet another story of someone graduating from U of M with no job offer, no idea what she will do. Oh, the degree was a BA in history. Meanwhile, skilled trades job offeres go begging. Yes, unskilled factory jobs are not the answer, but skilled trades are a different story.
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 11:32am
As a veteran teacher who used to be active in the Republican Party, here are 7 areas we can focus on as a part towards real education improvement in Michigan. 1. We need real cooperation between our state politicians and professional educators. Teachers have felt and received vicious attacks and hostility that has caused great harm! We work very hard, we have endured huge cuts to help our school districts deal with the economic crisis, and we put in many many hours of extra unpaid work. This must end! Professional educators need to be included, or even take the lead, in the changes Michigan needs to improve! 2. Evaluation: this needs to be much more than a few visits by an administrator or a given test that the teacher does not always know what is even covered on it, not to mention the students are not even held accountable for their test scores. Teacher evaluation should be comprehensive and supportive in the sense that the teacher is observed by multiple evaluators and given immediate feedback for improvement. Also teachers who seem to be struggling, often newer teachers, should first have a veteran master teacher not only observe them but assist them. If they can improve great! If not then there is grounds to dismiss. 3. Everyone must recognize that the number one problem is the poverty or near poverty are perhaps 40 percent or so of Michigan students. This has skyrocketed in the last few decades. 4. In every other advanced country the students are held strictly accountable for their test scores and they study for weeks and months in advance for their state tests. Here there is about zero accountability on the students for their test scores and most do not study at all on their own in advance and often just bubble in random answers on test day. The teachers know this, the students know this, but other think these state tests accurately show what students have learned. They do not! Without strict accountability they are a waste of time and money. 5. We need to end all for-profit public schools and return the idea of "Charter Schools" back to their original intent, which is to create special non-profit schools that can be set up to pilot a new way of teaching. There is no reason that any school cannot be fixed, and the pie is too small to keep carving out slices for more and more schools. The conflict has created many problems and has made things worse. We need to be improving schools, adding better technology, arts, extracurricular, labs, better staffing, athletics, etc, not making cuts all the time! 6. We need to blend college and high school by starting "concurrent education" in which we use the excellent teachers and facilities we already have in Michigan high schools and start offering course s that double as college credit by our regular high school teachers who have Masters degrees. This can save a lot of money and use the talent and resources we already have in place in cooperation with our local colleges. This is already being done in other states. Students could graduate high school and have up t two years of college completed. High school can also become more flexible with some students staying an extra year if need be. We need to end the cycle of making major curriculum and policy changes every few years as the teachers see one cycle after another of ever changing priorities. Also we have way too much turnover of school administrators with schools often going through Principals and Superintendents every few years. Its very hard to make longterm progress with so much turnover of the leaders. Being a Principal or Superintendent is a very tough job, we need to make reforms to better attract top candidates and keep them longer in schools so they can carry out longterm improvements. It is harder to attract top talent into education at all levels because of all the anti-teacher "reforms" and worsening pay and benefits. This all needs to be reversed to attract top talent in education. Also forcing all students to take foreign languages, advanced math, advanced science, etc does not make sense, especially for Special Ed kids. Some tracking is good and we need to also focus on the top students who need more advanced classes filled with more serious students. We need to focus on the arts too, along with technology, computer science, digital media and the skilled trades. Many needed improvements are currently being largely ignored. Should all students take a class in computer coding? Should there be mandatory summer school for students falling behind at all levels? These 7 areas would be a great start to focus on the real solutions and reforms we need in Michigan education! Any other ideas out there from educators? I could write many more but this is a start! MR
David Werner
Fri, 06/26/2015 - 1:40pm
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Fri, 06/26/2015 - 11:42pm
MRedtech...As a retired school supt I say "right on." Would say or do a thing or two differently, but you made some great points! Thanks.
Charles Richards
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 3:15pm
Michigan has already made a fundamental reform by sharply raising standards for new teachers. When we only accept applicants who came from the top twenty percent of their class, we will have to compete for people who have other good paying options such as engineering, management, information technology and other highly skilled occupations. We will, of necessity, have to offer competitive compensation to obtain high quality, talented people. Let us let that determine funding levels rather than just pay more for the teacher corps we have. And I think Mr. French makes a good point when he says, "This seems like a radical idea in Michigan, but it’s actually quite common. Thirty-five states weight their funding formulas for low-income students, students with a disability, students learning English, or a combination of those factors." And I'm surprised that Public Sector Consultants did not make some recommendations for school districts faced with the necessity of downsizing. It is a difficult problem. It is all too easy to fall into an ever steeper downward cycle of funding cuts that reduce the quality of education programs that are in turn followed by still more funding cuts.
Bob Balwinski
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 6:12pm
Charter schools are legally considered school districts. I worked with one that had 40 students. No one asked it to downsize but the superintendents of the nearby regular districts were forced to have that discussion even though all of them had at least 1,000 students.
Bob Balwinski
Thu, 06/25/2015 - 6:17pm
Proposal A of 1994 was sold as K-12 funding plan. The last two governors have taken funds out of School Aid Fund, Proposal A's creation, for community colleges, universities, special education initiatives, etc. Then, we ask why actual K-12 operating monies have decreased. Isn't it obvious?
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 06/28/2015 - 12:46pm
The educational institution, that' s all of public education, need reflect on John Dewey' assessment: Only in education, never in the life of the farmer, the sailor, merchant, physician or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing." Don't expect the, parent or child to know where you are and don't expect them to blindly follow your chosen intellectual path. Think about their journey so far and adjust your perceptions, attitudes and beliefs t.o meet them where they are. Then create something meaningful in the curriculum and pedagogy to advance their journey, not your discipline.
Wayne O'Brien
Sun, 06/28/2015 - 9:23pm
There are 57 references listed at the end of the 30 page report (cited above): Building a Brighter Future advanced by Public Sector Consultants. None of the references point to the writings of American philosopher John Dewey, who according to Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, is one of two philosophers highly favored by the Finns as they successfully reformed their schools decades ago. In fact Sahlberg has referred to Finland's schools collectively as "John Dewey's lab school"... In 1938 Dewey wrote: "What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan. It is for this reason alone that I have emphasized the need for a sound philosophy of experience". Not only did the folks at Public Sector Consultants forget to underpin their work with Dewey's philosophy, they also missed their opportunity to list Pasi Sahlberg as another relevant and significant reference. Ironically, Sahlberg has pointed to some of the same issues PSC listed as recommendations. When making helpful points to American audiences, Sahlberg talks about the need for an equal-allocation-of-resources school funding formula regardless of location or wealth of community. He makes it clear that all children must have access to child-care, comprehensive health care and pre-school in their own communities. Every school, he says, must have a team that advances the welfare and happiness of every child. Equity and equal opportunity to ever-improving high quality education for every child is of course fundamental according to Sahlberg. These stipulations from Sahlberg align with many of the PSC recommendations. The great challenge for Michigan citizens is to establish that shared "vision of success" that PSC points up so that "all key players are unified to achieve a common goal".... This is achievable -- if we can keep our eyes on those who have already accomplished documented world-wide success as educators, we'll catch up!
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 4:50pm
I wonder if the struggle in Michigan education system has to do with its purpose, it seems the current focus is on the delivery system rather than on student learning. Do we need to have a discussion on what the purpose of the Michigan educational system should be before revisiting how to educate?
Brenda Shufelt
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 3:33pm
I am a retired teacher who decided to return to my former school to find out more about the common core. I observed teachers for two months in Math, Science and Language Arts. The Science teachers were given a new science program to teach with no materials or text books. All the material they used was from searching the Internet and copying or designing worksheets. A second challenge was that the Special Ed support teachers were not in the classroom this year. I asked the teachers to write a letter to their Legislators telling them what they would need to be successful with all their students. When the Legislators received these letters it helped them to understand how lack of funding was hurting our children. My suggestion is turn the State funding system on it's head. Ask the teachers what they need to be successful with their students and provide it to them. Then you will see a difference.