Forget math in school funding debate

Guest Editorial
The CPA-in-chief took center stage in his State of the State address, and true to form, Gov. Rick Snyder put forward a modest, sensible vision for his fourth year in office while highlighting his administration’s accomplishments to date.

The governor, agree with him or not, is a straight shooter and a realist, even if he has been known to capitulate to extreme elements of his party to the dismay of many. That said, it’s an election year, and Democrats looking to seize control of the narrative were on the offensive even before the governor addressed the joint assembly.

The most heatedly disputed subject in the governor’s speech — ironic given that it wasn’t particularly new material — was his claim that per-pupil funding to K-12 schools has risen under his watch.

Snyder said that per-pupil funding from state sources had risen $660 during his administration, provoking charges from Democrats that the administration is using creative accounting paper over what amounts to a real reduction.

Who’s telling the truth? Like most stories based on figures, it depends on who is doing the figuring. Gongwer News Service, citing the state budgeticon1.png office, explained it this way in a recent report:

“(The office) took state spending on K-12 schools (not including federal money1__#$!@%!#__icon1.png or money spent on preschool or adult education from the 2010-11 fiscal year, the last budget enacted under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm), then divided that number ($10.672 billion) by the fall pupil count from that fiscal year (1,565,300) to get $6,818 per pupil.

“Then officials compared the figure for the current 2013-14 fiscal year ($11.395 billion) and divided it by the fall pupil count for the year of 1,522,600, and got $7,484.

“The increase from the 2010-11 fiscal year to 2013-14 is $666.”

That would indicate that the governor is selling himself $6 short. But context is important. We have fewer students2__#$!@%!#__icon1.png than we did three years ago. We’ve allocated hundreds of millions toward unfunded pension liabilities — money that doesn’t show up in the classroom. Costs have risen.

Candidly, we’re not as interested in nailing down the answer as we are in asking the right questions, specifically: “How much money do we need to adequately fund public education, and from where should that revenue come?”

Republicans and Democrats don’t have a particularly strong track record on K-12 funding, today’s crisis having been years in the making.

In an open letter to the governor last spring, Michigan State University3__#$!@%!#__icon1.png professor David Arsen summarized systemic problems facing the state’s public schools:

“Between 2002 and 2011, real per-pupil funding of Michigan’s public schools fell by $2,643 or 24.5 percent. Consequently, virtually all schools have cut services. Some of this decline is due to the state’s decade-long economic contraction which depressed sales, income4__#$!@%!#__icon1.png and property tax collections. But that’s not the main story. Sixty percent of the revenue decline can be attributed to declining tax effort — in other words, policy decisions. If we had merely devoted the same share of our personal income to public schools in 2011 as in 2002, per-pupil funding would have been $1,589 higher.”

We don’t need an economist or an accountant to verify what’s plain to see: Schools are running out of money, and the education of our children is suffering as a result.

Too many of our legislators are fixated on implementing Common Core standards, new testing regimes and punitive evaluation systems when they should be examining the underlying causes of the threats to public education.

Rather than a petty argument over how the beans are counted, we need a substantive debate over how we’re going to adequately support public education. Now would be a good time.