During his Jan. 16 State of the State address, Gov. Rick Snyder said he increased funding to K-12 education.
For Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, it was a simple claim to verify. The Senate Fiscal Agency had a chart it produced that showed the increase in state funding under Gov. Snyder. The Senate Fiscal Agency describes itself as a "nonpartisan legislative agency created to provide the Michigan Senate with sound and unbiased assistance …"
Still, that claim set off a flurry of criticism from conventional public school advocates who initially said Gov. Snyder was incorrect and funding has decreased.
And some of the state's newspapers treated the issue as a "he said, she said" debate without carefully examining the claims. The Detroit Free Press reported in a story the day before Gov. Snyder's speech that districts were in deficit partly because of state funding cuts, a claim the newspaper later stated was not accurate.
On the day of Gov. Snyder's speech, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer posted on his campaign Facebook page that Gov. Snyder cut funding to K-12 education.
Eventually, the traditional media changed its reporting of the so-called funding cuts. MLive and the Free Press concluded it was not accurate to say Gov. Snyder cut funding. But not until a series of stories by Michigan Capitol Confidential helped show them the way.
On Jan. 17, Michigan Capitol Confidential did a story highlighting how Gov. Snyder has increased funding to K-12 education and cited a Senate Fiscal Agency report to document the claim. On Jan. 24, Capitol Confidential did a story noting that Schauer was wrong when he told WJR radio any increase in school funding under Gov. Snyder was due to federal dollars. The article pointed out that federal funds had declined under Gov. Snyder relative to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Capitol Confidential then reported Jan. 27 that advocates for more state funding were ignoring $2 billion public schools get that is not part of the per-pupil state foundation allowance. Part of the $2 billion being ignored was the state making payments on the pensions and retiree health care plans for school employees, the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS).
A Jan. 29, story examined how the state helped in paying off MPSERS' unfunded liability, but pointed out that in the ongoing debate that money wasn't being counted toward state funding.
Eventually, the traditional media joined in.
On Feb. 2, Detroit Free Press reporter Paul Egan did a story that said the claims of education cuts amounted to "a false accusation" about Gov. Snyder's actions on education.
"Did Snyder cut $1 billion from K-12 education, as many critics claim?" the article asked. "The answer is no, state records show. In fact, Snyder's first budget ultimately increased the state share of education funding by about $134 million, from $10.7 billion in 2011 to $10.8 billion in 2012."
Still, Schauer's campaign has continued with the debunked claim that Gov. Snyder cut $1 billion in funding from education. It posted on Feb. 3 a link to a commercial from the Democratic Governors Association that made the same claim.
Then on Feb. 5, MLive did a "fact check" on Schauer's claim that Gov. Snyder cut $1 billion from education and found the claim to be inaccurate.
The MLive story reported the new narrative Gov. Snyder's critics are making since they no longer can claim he cut state funding to K-12 education.
"Overall state spending is up," the MLive story read. "… but that doesn't necessarily mean all of that money is making it into the classroom."
Gov. Snyder's critics say the $160.5 million in 2012-13 and the $404.4 million in 2013-14 that the state used to pay for teacher retirement costs (MPSERS) is not considered "in class" spending.
Bridge Magazine's "Truth Squad" reviewed the governor's first commercial announcing his run for another term and said funding was both up and down. It also claimed teacher pension benefits are not classroom spending.
"There is wider appreciation for the fact that Snyder did increase school budgets, just not as much as the public schools wanted," Hohman said. "When school officials complain about money not being spent 'in the classroom,' what they seem to mean is that the state isn't contributing money directly to their general fund without any strings attached."