Commentary
11:19 am
Tue August 30, 2011

Proposal A Revisited

These are tough times for Michigan’s Public Schools, which by and large, have done a superb job educating our citizens since we became a state nearly two hundred years ago.

Statewide, the schools are suffering from a series of crippling funding cuts enacted at the same time we are demanding they do more with less. Teachers feel that their hard-won health care, pension, salaries and benefits are under siege.

And some districts are suffering further because an explosion of charter schools are taking students and money away from them. This is most acute in Detroit. There, a revolving door of expensive financial managers and high-paid consultants have proven unable to fix the schools or halt the stampede away from them.

Naturally, this has led to a crisis atmosphere. I spent yesterday afternoon with the leadership of the various school districts in one of Michigan’s major counties. They believe there is an actual conspiracy against them. They think there are those who want to essentially destroy public education and turn it into a system of charter schools and vouchers, for one big reason: To get private hands on some of the thirteen billion a year Michigan spends on public education.

Whether that’s true or not, that there is a major crisis - and coincidentally, a major new report finally gets to the bottom of just why this is. There are few institutions more respected than the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, whose motto is this: The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Released yesterday, the CRC’s study is called “Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools.” That may not sound like a sexy page-turner, but for those of us interested in saving our state, it is.

Essentially, the eighty-seven page report says that we have been having the wrong argument about the schools. We’ve been quarreling over the amount of funding. What we need to be asking is how the basic funding mechanism known as Proposal A has functioned since it was enacted seventeen years ago. The bottom line: Not very well.

Proposal A shifted the primary responsibility for school funding from local district property taxes to a per-pupil “foundation grant” distributed by state government. What this did was ensure some of the most poorly funded districts of a stable revenue stream. But it also strictly prohibited better-off districts from raising their revenues as much as they could have. This has resulted in a steady decline of quality.

And now, the CRC report indicates, Proposal A isn’t working very well anywhere. It never really did work as expected. It did help the poorest funded schools, but these weren’t always the same as the districts with the poorest people. Nor has funding inequality gone away, though it’s less than it was. But thanks to inflation and the state’s financial crisis, virtually all Michigan school districts are doing less well than they were in 1995.

Clearly, we need a new conversation and new policies. I’m not yet prepared to say what they should be. But I know that anyone who cares about education in this state needs to go to the CRC’s website and read this report. Before it is too late.