How to Make Michigan Schools More Expensive

Mark Schauer's education plan protects the status quo

Gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer has released his plan for Michigan education. Rather than propose innovative solutions to Michigan's changing school environment, Schauer's plan appears to be largely directed toward protecting the status quo and making education more expensive.

The proposal calls for an "adequacy study" to determine the “true cost” of educating a child in Michigan. Adequacy studies are typically veiled efforts to increase education spending. There is overwhelming evidence that the problem with Michigan school funding is not a lack of money — but that the money is wastefully spent.

Indeed, a comprehensive study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education itself concluded that per-pupil instructional expenditures have an "indeterminate effect" on student outcomes and that there might be evidence of over spending. 

A quick look at districts in financial distress shows how little funding matters to education. Pontiac spends more than $16,400 per student. Buena Vista, a district dissolved due to its financial troubles, was spending nearly $18,000 per student. Clearly, the problem with those districts was not a lack of revenue.

Schauer also proposes creating statewide maximum class sizes. Not only would this make it more difficult for Michigan school districts to respond to student enrollment shifts, it would also increase the cost of education in this state without improving student outcomes. Michigan average class size has declined substantially in recent years, with no discernable impact on student achievement. And if the state were to reduce the average class size by 10 percent, the cost to state taxpayers would be more than $1 billion.

The candidate's plan also calls for requiring all charter schools to participate in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. Schauer states that this will "ensure the long-term solvency of retirement funds."  

But the real problem with MPSERS is the political inclination to over promise and underfund. Schauer should know this since he — and every other Michigan Senator at the time — voted to underfund MPSERS in 2007 in order to spend money elsewhere.

In addition, the overly optimistic assumptions the state is using to estimate future MPSERS performance mean that the system continues to be underfunded. With such systematic underfunding, every employee who is not in MPSERS is actually helping the state avoid racking up additional unfunded liabilities

Rather than fixing the problem, this proposal simply seeks to burden charter schools with what some have called the "zombie that ate school funding."

Schauer also states that "The state should halt the unrestricted expansion of poor quality charters and cyber-only schools that aren't educating children..." What this statement ignores is the fact that attending a charter school requires parents to make a conscious choice to change the school their children attend. There is a reason parents are opting for charter schools, and it is likely because their local district is not providing the education their children need.

Disturbingly, Schauer's call for increased accountability disregards conventional schools. If he is concerned about low-quality schools, why not also consider some of Michigan's conventional districts that are producing poor results? For too long, conventional schools with abysmal performance have been the default educational option. In comparison, 77 public charter schools have been closed in the past decade. 

It is hard to look at these proposals and not be concerned that they are an attempt to preserve the status quo instead of improving educational outcomes for students. Michigan schools are certainly struggling, but the answer is not to limit choice — especially when charter schools have proven to produce better results for students

A more serious proposal to help Michigan's struggling school districts would include a plan to fix MPSERS, and give conventional school officials increased flexibility to react to enrollment changes.