A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

When I was a junior high school student in Illinois, I was once told by district employees that if a school funding referendum did not pass, some of my favorite teachers would lose their jobs. As the son of the school board president, I was well aware of the issue, but I can imagine that this energized several of my classmates to get their parents out to vote — and vote a particular way. It's certainly important for voters to be accurately and soberly informed regarding the likely implications of the school budget going up or down, but is it just as acceptable for the school to advocate one side or the other of this decision?

Since coming to Michigan, I've noticed that the official Web pages of many public school districts have implemented a policy that looks a lot like using the taxpayers' dime to advocate for more of the taxpayers' dimes. In other words, they go beyond providing "just the facts" about what will happen if the budget goes up or down and instead openly agitate for higher spending.

Some examples:

Sault Area Public School District has a link on its Web site that reads, "Contact Your Legislators." It takes you to a page that coaches letter-writers to employ the following "key points":

  • The State of Michigan's investment in our children is critical;
  • You value your local public schools;
  • You know that strong public schools are a key to economic development;
  • Funding our public schools should be their top priority;
  • You want the state to provide adequate and equitable funding for all public school students;
  • You want to retain the high quality educational programs provided for your children.

Mesick Consolidated Schools has a "Message from the Superintendent." This links to a letter that outlines the positions against cutting state aid, for using stimulus funds "equitably" for schools and even for a reduction in the number of charter public schools by "reviewing their performance and revoking charters for those that are failing our students." 

While holding public schools accountable and closing the ones that don't measure up is a noble objective, it is a telling omission that Mesick doesn't advocate also closing the conventional school districts that fail to meet standards. For example, the National Assessment for Educational Progress recently released results showing that Detroit Public Schools students scored the worst in the nation on a national test. The executive of the NAEP, Michael Casserly said, "[The test scores] are barely above what one would expect simply by chance, as if the kids simply guessed at the answers."

So, is Mesick more concerned about the competition from charters, rather than the quality of all schools?

Mesick's issue advocacy also extends to calling for a rollback of term limits and giving all lawmakers 12 years in office. This might seem unrelated to school issues, so the Web site connects the dots: "Just when our elected officials understand the issues ... they are effectively removed from office by term limits."

What an interesting perspective to appear on a Web page otherwise dedicated to pleading with politicians to behave in the best interests of the school district. The reader might conclude that this kind of overt spending advocacy by public school districts has been going on for a long time and that Michigan's term limit amendment has been a major impediment to the district defeating the other side of the debate.

Grand Rapids Public Schools, Michigan's third-largest district, also advocates for more spending. On its homepage, the district has links to the following:

A letter from the superintendent talking about their spending reductions. It concludes:  "Parents, staff, GRPS supporters and concerned citizens are encouraged to contact their state lawmakers and urge them to oppose the proposed cuts in the School Aid budget."

A brochure titled "Contact Your Legislators," with information outlining contact information. This is put out by a group called "Advocates for Grand Rapids Public Schools."

A list of talking points outlining what people should say to their legislators.

This list of talking points goes through a lot of issues but mostly centers on opposing any budget cuts (it lists some specifically) and encouraging more school funding. It also "SUPPORT[S] administrative and legislative program changes that will provide additional resources (revenue) to our classrooms" and seeks a "possible expansion of our sales tax to include a tax on luxury service purchases."

Outside of these particularly bold districts, there are a few others that encourage residents to contact legislators for more funding. Conversely, we have not located a single district Web site that provides suggested talking points for taxpayers who wish to tell their lawmakers that school funding is just fine where it is — or maybe could be trimmed since times are tough for Michigan taxpayers as well. Anyone with that heretical opinion has to think for themselves without assistance from a taxpayer-financed Web site.

Some districts may compare their "more money" advocacy to that of a business advocating for positions that benefit them. However, there are major differences. Businesses often use their own money to lobby for keeping more of their own money. These public school districts are using your money to argue for taking more of your money.

Like all public entities, a school has the sole purpose of providing a service — in this case, the best education that can be had for the money made available. We don't allow public institutions to rally on behalf of candidates with our tax dollars, and we shouldn't allow them to take stands on political issues with them either.

(Editor's Note: For more information on public entities using tax dollars to agitate for more tax dollars, please see www.mackinac.org/8194.)

Jarrett Skorup is the research associate for online engagement for Michigan Capitol Confidential. He may be reached at skorup@mackinac.org.

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Star International Academy is the highest ranked high school in Michigan on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Contest and Performance report card for both 2014 and 2012. The study and a database of every school in the state can be found at www.Mackinac.org/CAP.

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