Fix for school funding disparity 20 years late

Promises and political talking points are meaningless if nobody takes action to fix a glaring inequity.

Nowhere is such flaccidity more obvious than in Michigan’s public education system. Both state and local politicians for decades have bombarded voters with grand commitments to repair the state’s public schools and install equality in a system fraught with special treatment. It’s work that could be characterized as a dismal failure by at least one key, clear-cut measure: funding.

More than two decades have elapsed since voters approved Proposal A on the promise that the ballot measure would curb out-of-control property tax hikes and install equity in the state’s school funding model.

The proposal’s language fixed property tax inflation almost immediately, but left the school funding question to legislators.
Well, 22 years have now elapsed and per-pupil funding sent to local school districts from state coffers is as off-kilter as it was when Proposal A passed in 1994.

Several school districts where politically powerful constituencies reside in southeast and west Michigan have continued to rake in thousands more than others in per-pupil funding.

That disparity means that some students in more affluent areas benefit from 58 percent more per-student funding than those who attend school almost everywhere else.

Lawmakers have offered a few faux-efforts to whittle away at the disparity, but their efforts have been paltry at best. Gov. Rick Snyder’s increased allocation to the poorest funded schools in the upcoming budget year is a perfect example.

The system — labeled “2X” funding — will increase per-pupil payments to the lowest-funded districts by $120 and $60 for the richest districts.

That slow-drip effort will close the state’s gaping school funding gap in about 75 years.

Such a disparity isn’t just a clash between the haves and have-nots, it is a civil rights issue.

That is 58 percent more money to buy the most up-to-date curricula. Fifty-eight percent more money to attract and retain the best teachers. Fifty-eight percent more money to prepare students for the world after school.

And it’s as unacceptable today as it was in 1994.

What lawmaker could argue with a straight face that students attending Traverse City Area Public Schools each are worth $4,400 less to the state of Michigan than their counterparts who attend Birmingham Public Schools?

That’s not to say nobody is talking about the problem.

School officials in districts statewide who cope with the minimum $7,511 per-student payments have for years lobbied Lansing about the inequity.

Meanwhile a state-funded education finance study pointed out that the poorest districts are underpaid by more than $1,000 per student. And Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission is expected to produce a report by early next year that examines funding issues.

The reports likely will spur some meaningful dialogue, but talk is cheap and decades of lip service so far hasn’t fixed the disparity.
It’s time for lawmakers to put their money where their mouth is.

Our students deserve an equal education.

— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE