Three weeks after a new study recommended sweeping changes to Michigan’s school funding system, the question remains: Could it have an impact, or will it join previous funding studies on the shelf?
Advocates who hoped that Gov. Rick Snyder would take up the cause in his last year in office now assume little will happen immediately. That’s because Snyder did not signal any interest in his State of the State and budget address in overhauling the way the state allocates funds to schools, even as he indicated he would support increasing per-pupil funding.
“We listened with great interest in the State of the State address hoping the governor would bring that problem forth to make it a legacy in his last year to increasing and properly funding education in the state, said David Crim, a spokesperson for the state teachers union. “One would think this would be one of his priorities, but we were very disappointed it wasn’t mentioned.”
But they say they are hopeful the study can gain momentum next year, when Snyder’s successor takes office and Republican lawmakers might be less focused on appealing to voters by cutting taxes.
“The governor is in his last year, and in his last State of the State address says we need to significantly and for the first time increase investment in K-12, which is good — but the problem is the governor is out of gas,” said John Austin, immediate past president of the State School Board and director of the Michigan Economic Center.
While the School Finance Research Collaborative study released Jan. 17 found Michigan schools cannot compete nationally or adequately serve children’s needs without additional funding and resources, so did the March 2017 21st Century Education Commission report, commissioned by the governor, and the June 2016 Michigan Education Finance Study and nothing happened with them. That’s why some leaders believe the study will be shelved like others before it — unless something drastically different happens.
That includes pressing political candidates to support the report’s recommendations — and holding them to it once they take office, according to Austin.
“Anybody running for governor… should, in my view, run with the study as part of their platform and say if elected, ‘I’m going to implement proper support for great public education for every kid in Michigan,’” Austin said. “And if a governor is elected on that platform and if the legislature changes, that’s when we’ll see some action.”
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The collaborative — a 22-member team assisted by 300 educators and others from around the state — spent 18 months and nearly $900,000 to reach its findings. So it makes sense that getting the findings adopted might take time, according to Robert Moore, project director for the School Finance Research Collaborative study and the deputy superintendent of finance and operations for Oakland Schools.
“This is a journey, not an event,” Moore said. “We’ve got to get started because we’re slipping nationally and we’re doing terribly. We know what our game plan is because we are not going to be in the advocacy business. We are going to be in the ‘Here’s what the report says, here’s what it means, here’s how it works, what are your questions?’ business. We will let other people take up the mantle and try to advocate for action.”
Moore said he believes the first step, the process of sharing study findings, will take several weeks alone.
“We have this complex monster of school finance and we have these recommendations on how to build a formula to meet the needs of every student in the funding formula,” he said. “That is what we asked the researchers to do: Tell us the cost to get every student to the state standard no matter where they live and no matter what their needs are.”
Next, the collaborative must determine how to build a formula, Moore said, apply it to district and school demographics and characteristics, and decide how much additional funding needs to be distributed to every district and charter school in the state. That work is just getting underway.
For that reason, the study is not ready for a political path to implementation, said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.
“Right now, we’ve just received this study and we’re going through it deeply to determine exactly what it says, and we need everyone to learn more about the report,” Wigent said. “We not at the point where we have any kind of solid legislative recommendations, but that should take months rather than years.”
After the next round of elections, the report’s backers hope, Republican lawmakers who are currently vying to convince voters that they won’t raise taxes might be more inclined to consider costly changes to the funding system. But Austin said he isn’t optimistic.
“These legislators are talking about tax cuts versus actually doing what every study has said: We need to invest more,” said Austin. “Their philosophy is totally antithetical to what we actually need to do.”
What’s clear, according to Crim, is that politics need to be pushed aside for the state’s education funding system reform to move forward.
“If we just looked at doing what’s right and looking at these three studies — that have been produced all within the span of the last year or so — time after time showing we need to fund public schools,” he said. “Unless something changes drastically, my fear is this new study will go the way of the previous studies and won’t affect policy.”