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Published: Friday, 6/16/2006

Ballot proposal takes aim at Michigan's school funding woes

LANSING, Mich. - Financially, it's been a rough ride for Michigan public schools the last few years. Creative financing by the legislature - and an exodus of students to charter schools - have hurt elementary and secondary education throughout the state.

Colleges and universities have had a rough time, too, especially over the past four years, when a perpetually unbalanced state budget has resulted in the loss of millions via last-minute emergency cuts.

That's been happening precisely when Michigan's economic crisis has highlighted the need for a better educated work force, and a special commission chaired by Lt. Gov. John Cherry wants to double the number of Michigan citizens with college degrees.

But school funding woes could be about to change. The K-16 Coalition for Michigan's Future, a group of school administrators, teachers, and other education supporters, have collected enough signatures to place a proposal on the November ballot that would guarantee that school funding would no longer be cut - ever.

Indeed, their proposal would increase funding for all state schools, from kindergartens to the University of Michigan, by at least the Consumer Price Index, every year.

"Education is part of the foundation of a good economy, and a key to economic development," said Thomas White, chairman of the coalition and head of Michigan School Business Officials.

The proposal has been attacked by a broad range of groups, from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to public policy experts who think that making complex funding decisions by a simple and binding vote is neither good government nor good sense.

Supporters understand those arguments - and, surprisingly, say they really don't want a statewide vote, and note there is a simple way to avoid it.

All that has to happen is for the Michigan Legislature to pass two bills that would have precisely the same effect.

Under Michigan law, if the legislature passes an initiative within 40 days, the amendment doesn't go on the ballot. There is even a big advantage for those who are doubtful about the idea. If the funding initiative is passed by the lawmakers, they can reverse it at any time by a simple majority vote, as they can any other law.

But if it goes to a vote of the people instead - and passes - it would take another statewide vote, or approval by three-quarters of the legislature, to reverse it. "With the clock ticking, we urge the legislature to take immediate action and schedule a vote on the people's petition to adequately fund public education," Mr. White said.

Don't hold your breath. Republicans, who control the legislature, sneered that they had no plans to bring it up for a vote at all. They mainly echoed the arguments of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which will be a key player in opposing the initiative.

"The proposal would cost the state at least $1 billion a year," the chamber argues in an official statement, and "remove a large sum of money from annual review and budgetary control."

The chamber's opposition was predictable, but even some experts with very different backgrounds agree. "This is a really bad idea," said David Plank, a professor of educational administration at Michigan State University. "This is a public policy problem, and this proposal would just put school funding on autopilot."

What that doesn't take into account, however, is that, thanks to term limits and ideological and partisan gridlock, a form of paralysis has settled over the normal public policy process.

Lawmakers seem incapable of not only solving the state's budget crisis, but even of making almost any difficult decisions.

As a result, the November ballot is fast filling up with proposals (six so far), some of which clearly should have been solved by the legislature instead. (If there has to be a state referendum on dove hunting, why bother to have expensive, full-time lawmakers?)

And if the policy experts largely agree that locking in school funding is a bad idea, there is one group who seems to strongly disagree: the voters, according to various polls.

The most recent one, published in the Detroit News this week, shows 63 percent of the voters favor the K-16 proposal while only 29 percent oppose it. Other surveys have shown margins even higher, which might suggest the legislature would do well to save face and do something about education funding in Michigan.

But don't bet on it.

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WHY real life beats fiction, every time: Last week a 16-year-old girl from Tuscola County, a rural part of Michigan's Thumb, told her parents she was going with friends to Canada. Instead she took a plane to Amman, Jordan, in an attempt to marry a man she had met on the Internet, who called himself "Abdullah Psycho."

They caught her at the airport in Jordan and sent her back. But according to press reports, Psycho's family is still hoping she will come back and marry him. No reporter I know could - even when drunk - have made that one up.



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