News Story

Michigan School Districts In Perpetual 'Funding Crisis'

No matter the funding, lobbying groups always pushing for more

Add the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards to those in the education lobby pounding the drums about a "crisis" in funding for public education.

In a column in MLive, the MASB's Kathy Hayes talked about the number of schools in deficit at the end of fiscal year 2012 and asked: "Are we really talking about financial mismanagement or is this predominantly a case of a steady disinvestment in education?"

Her question is easy to answer. When Jennifer Granholm was governor, the state foundation allowance was increased six consecutive years from 2002-03 to 2008-09. The result? The number of schools in deficit jumped from 10 in 2002-03 to 41 in 2008-09.

"This indicates it is a spending problem on the part of those school districts," said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The minimum state foundation allowance increased from $6,626 per student in 2002-03 to $7,316 in 2008-09, not factoring in inflation.

Gov. Rick Snyder cut the foundation allowance in 2011-12 in his first budget and the number of schools in deficit increased by one: going from 48 to 49.

Van Beek also questioned the school districts Hayes used as examples, Buena Vista, Pontiac and Albion.

Albion, for example, received more money per pupil in 2011 than it did in 2007, even after adjusting for inflation. Yet the district is closing its high school and faces a $1.1 million deficit. 

Buena Vista would need an additional $2,300 per pupil to pay off its $1 million-plus deficit. That’s a 30-percent increase over its 2013 state foundation allowance of $7,021 per student. Pontiac would need an additional $7,261 per student to wipe out its $37.7 million deficit, or more than double its 2013 foundation allowance of $7,021 per student.

"It would have required a massive increase in school funding that no one is talking about," Van Beek said. "It doesn't matter if funding goes up by a couple percentage points to these districts. Buena Vista would still be in deficit and so would Pontiac."

Case in point is the former Highland Park school district. Despite spending almost $20,000 per pupil (the highest in the state), Highland Park apparently could not even maintain the basics of a learning environment. Students reported seeing mice regularly and there were holes in the walls and ceilings of the high school.

Also, in her column, Hayes cited a study on school funding done by MSU Professor David Arsen that has proven incorrect. Hayes wrote: "a school finance specialist stated 'between 2002 and 2011, real pupil funding of Michigan's public schools fell by $2,643 or 24.5 percent.' "

But Van Beek said that was false, because Arsen didn’t include billions of dollars in his analysis, including money that went to intermediate school districts and also federal dollars schools receive. Arsen was forced to issue a correction after a fact check by Van Beek.

Hayes' comments are not surprising as the MASB and other groups that support the conventional public school system have sent out "action alerts" for years talking about the dire need for more money.

Pam Jodway, director of communications for the MASB, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.