Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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Toward school reform in Michigan

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Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has generated much criticism for his administration’s handling of public education.

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Michigan once again, indeed for the third time in 50 years, finds its public school system failing. It badly needs reform and the answer may come in the form of a proposed flexible financing system, recently put forward by some civic leaders of the state.

For many years, Michigan public schools were financed mostly by property tax millages. The result was predicable and exactly what has happened in many states: Affluent areas and places where residents prized education usually had excellent schools and poorer, rural areas did not.

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Year after year, some districts, most notably Kalkaska, would run out of money and close before June.

Finally, in 1994, the state voted to switch to a system known as “Proposal A,” funded largely by a per-pupil grant designed to bring up the quality of the poorest districts. That equalized school spending to some degree, but not always school quality. It turns out that spending does not necessarily equal quality and the effects of poverty on learning are not easily overcome, in city or country.

Moreover, affluent districts were strictly limited in how much they could appropriate, even if voters were happily eager to tax themselves, which seems democratically and constitutionally dubious. This limitation also helped foster mediocrity.

Next, poorer, urban districts were dealt a blow when, beginning in the late 1990s, the state began authorizing hundreds of charter schools, many run by for-profit companies. These are technically public schools, but often have insufficient oversight, and frequently function with fewer resources. They drain resources from public schools. For every child who attends a charter, that’s $7,631 the traditional public school doesn’t get.

In reaction to this inequity, a group of business and education leaders called the “School Finance Research Project,” recently produced what it called a “road map” for fixing Michigan’s school financing system. Some of the details are debatable, but what’s most important is that it calls for a financially flexible model that is aimed at doing whatever it takes to educate students in their specific districts, and to meet them where they are individually and cognitively. Not all children are equal, in talent, in luck, in advantage and disadvantage. It will always cost more to educate some than others.

But, in the final analysis, nothing is more costly to society than adults whom the education system has failed and who end up without skills and unemployable.

Michigan has a failing public education system. There are too many students with dangerously low reading and math skills. Fixing that, by whatever realistic means necessary, should be state lawmakers’, and the next governor’s, priority homework assignment.

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