GUEST VIEW: Michigan schools stink because we stopped paying for them

The following editorial was published in the Jan. 25 edition of the Detroit Free Press:

Here’s the plain truth: We Michiganders have been lying to ourselves.

We tell ourselves that there is nothing more important than our children, that we are striving to build a better state for them to inherit, that nothing is too good for them. That they are our futures.

But it’s hard to reconcile that worthy sentiment with a new Michigan State University report’s findings: Compared to other states, Michigan ranks dead last when it comes to growth in education funding.

While other states have increased the amount of money they spend on education, Michigan’s inflation-adjusted allocation has dropped 30 percent since 2002. It’s worse for at-risk kids, for whom school funds have dropped 60 percent since 2001.

Why has the amount of money we dedicate to our schools declined?

First, the state started diverting money meant for schools to other purposes. Instead of serving as a dedicated funding stream for schools, the school tax dollars the state collects have become a slush fund for balancing the budget, the report’s authors say. It’s an ongoing trend; before leaving office, former Gov. Rick Snyder approved the transfer of more school taxes for road repairs and environmental cleanup.

Second, Michigan has cut taxes, all while raising educational stakes — requiring students to meet specific educational goals, with stiff penalties for schools whose students don’t.

In other states, the report’s authors note, demands for improved student performance have been coupled with the resources to reach those goals. In Michigan, we’ve cut the resources allocated to achieve our more ambitious educational goals.

A 1994 reform was intended to make school funding more equitable, narrowing the gap between wealthy districts that collect substantial property taxes revenues, and poorer districts that collect less.

Proposal A also restricted the ability of local districts to levy additional taxes, save for limited purposes such as building, facility or technology upgrades. Charter schools can’t levy taxes to pay for building maintenance or improvements. And because Prop A didn’t allow sufficient dollars to educate or at-risk and special needs kids — and because the federal government mandates appropriate education for the latter — the scant state dollars allotted per pupil must serve to educate all students, regardless of circumstance.

So if you’ve wondered why your district no longer offers programs like art or music, or why there are no teaching assistants — why, in short, your district’s classrooms are is operating bare-bones classrooms — this is why.

There is no shortage of data to document the costs of diminished funding. Student performance has declined, not just in struggling urban districts like Detroit and Flint, but in comfortable suburbs where quality schools used to attract new residents.

And there is no shortage of reports that prescribe solutions to the problem: Most agree that we need to spend more on education, particularly on students who are at-risk, have special needs or are learning English.

None of those reports seem to have lit a fire under Lansing lawmakers.

This one should.

Michigan students’ scores on national tests are among the worst in the nation. The amount of money we’re willing to spend on schools has not grown. Sometimes, correlation is causation.

We’re not making good on the promises we’ve made to our kids, that they are entitled to the same quality education their parents and grandparents enjoyed without thought. We can’t be a state that continues to claim that we prioritize our children while we continue to hamstring their futures.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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