According to U.S. Census figures released this spring, when federal dollars are included Michigan ranked 22nd nationally in K-12 spending last year, at $11,987 per-pupil. That equates to $299,675 for a class of 25 students.
One peculiar quirk in the state's current school funding debate is that it focuses attention on relatively small portions of overall K-12 funding. The numbers typically being argued over include: $170 per-pupil in one-time federal stimulus dollars, a $470 per-pupil cut originally proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, and a $230 per-pupil retirement cost increase.
Focusing on those numbers might be compared to worrying over an ant crossing the carpet in your living room while not noticing a rhinoceros standing next to the couch.
To place such figures in context; consider the $470 per-pupil cut Snyder proposed in February. The Legislature did not go along with Snyder's proposal, and the final 2011-2012 K-12 budget featured a smaller per-pupil cut. However, if the governor and Legislature had actually gone through with Snyder's $470 (which includes the $170 in stimulus dollars) reduction, Michigan's per-pupil spending level would still have been a hefty $11,517 per-pupil — or $287,925 for a class of 25.
The recent clamor over the K-12 cuts seems to have subsided slightly during the summer, but may well be revived by school officials and unions to reach a crescendo in September. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are preparing for what may be coming their way by focusing on the bigger picture.
“How do I deal with the parents of the kid who comes home with the 'Stop the Raid on School Aid' pamphlet in his backpack?” Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St Clair, asked rhetorically. “The way I finally decided to deal with it was to instruct my office to go back and look at the Michigan Department of Education 1014 report and the Mackinac Center's school database.”
The 1014 report Pavlov refers to is officially called Bulletin 1014. It annually ranks Michigan public schools by select financial information and contains various intriguing bits of financial information about Michigan public schools, including revenue and expenditure per pupil. Additionally, it includes average teacher salaries, and taxable value information.
“We did a five-year look back,” Pavlov continued. “We calculated administration and teacher salaries. We noted the percentage of enrollment that's been lost, calculated administrator and teacher salaries and related them to health care benefits and their costs. At that point, we're finally ready to have a conversation.”
State Rep. Margaret O'Brien, R-Portage, said she understands the K-12 budget but prefers to use a broader viewpoint when discussing it with constituents.
“I tell them that Michigan has the 7th highest paid teachers in the nation — fourth highest when adjusted for region,” said O'Brien. “Then I point out that we rank around 21st nationally in per-pupil spending, but we're in the bottom third in academic achievement. When our education system is producing that much less compared to our investment ... that tells me that our system is broken.”
As the rhetorical battle continues to brew, school districts and teachers unions claim the K-12 budget cuts were “devastating,” and lawmakers deal with blow-back from the allegation. A good place to find out what a particular school district has to say about the state's K-12 cuts is to go to its website.
The Kalamazoo Public Schools' Web page evaluates and breaks down that district’s analysis of the funding cuts. Kalamazoo’s assertion is that the state’s cuts actually add up to somewhere between $567 and $667 per pupil.
Here's how the KPS website presents the situation:
- a $170 per-pupil cut because today’s state politicians did not provide a replacement for the one-time 2010 “stimulus” funding that came from the federal (rather than state) government.
- a $130 per-pupil cut as a result of the state contributing just $100 per-pupil toward a $239 per-pupil retirement contribution rate increase.
- a $200 per-pupil cut due to a reduction in the foundation allowance
This, according to Kalamazoo Public Schools, adds up to an overall $500 per-pupil cut for school districts.
Kalamazoo then adds two more cuts to the list. The first is a potential $100 per student cut that districts could suffer if they fail to adopt Gov. Snyder's “Best Practices.” Then there's an additional $67 per-pupil cut from a one-third cut to the district's class size reduction grant.
Kalamazoo uses the variable $567 to $667 numbers on the premise that a district might or might not accomplish the “Best Practices” requirements. The governor’s requirements mean that the district must meet criteria such as mandatory employee cost sharing on health insurance, competitive bidding for non-instructional services, and more.
If the Kalamazoo calculation were true and the state cut $667 per-pupil, then that would be roughly a 5.5 percent decrease in the $11,987 per-pupil funding that schools in Michigan received last year. This would reduce the per-pupil funding to $11,320. Another way of looking at it would be this: a $667 per-pupil cut for a class of 25 students would leave $283,000 for the class.
Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, said that he was already aware that a class of 25 students represents more than $280,000 in funding.
“I tell people, when you open that classroom door you're looking at more than a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer investment,” Rogers said.
But, as chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid, Rogers also has to keep a handle on the K-12 budget details. Capitol Confidential asked Rogers to evaluate the Kalamazoo budget cut calculation.
“First, on that $170 per-pupil money we got from the federal stimulus last year, everybody knew that was one-time funding,” Rogers said. “To me, it's disingenuous to consider that as part of the cuts.
According to Rogers, districts that lose out on the $100 per-pupil boost for not meeting “Best Practices” requirements will have no one to blame but themselves.
“They only have to get four of the five [Best Practices requirements],” Rogers said. “To me, those are softballs. There's no reason they can't get those accomplished.”
Rogers said that he sympathizes with school administrators on the $130 per-pupil health care increase situation, but the extra cost wasn't the fault of the governor or lawmakers. “The problem there was that someone took the 3 percent employee contribution to court,” Rogers said. “That someone was the MEA.”
The Michigan Education Association is the state’s largest teachers union.
KPS Superintendent Michael Rice did not return the phone call when given a chance to add his comments to this article.