Commentary

Spending Interests Want Spending

Yet spending interests won’t say where the money should come from

The Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative — a group of school interests that want more money for schools — released a poll indicating that Michigan voters also want more school funding. Without listing where the money would come from, the poll tells politicians little about popular budget priorities.

Michigan levies taxes, and lawmakers decide where that money should go in annual budgets. If lawmakers want to spend more on schools, the money has to come from somewhere — tax increases, spending decreases elsewhere, or economic growth that generates higher tax revenue. The statement that people want more school money needs to be followed with a recommendation for where it should come from.

Of course, schools have been getting more money already. School revenue is up 4.6 percent above inflation since the 2009-10 fiscal year, even as there are 184,000 fewer students (7.3 percent) in the system. Economic growth drove the state budget to increase, and school funding with it, though not as much. This means that schools have been less of a priority than, say, disbursements to local governments, which are up 13 percent above inflation. Or spending on roads, which is up 50 percent above inflation and bolstered by recent tax hikes.

If voters supported an increase in, say, the sales tax to go to schools, it would provide stronger evidence that there is popular support for more school funding.

Yet through the common tactic of the trough truce, spending interests ignore the question of where extra money for their cause should come from. If they are all in it together to get more money, then it’s difficult for them to single out an area to spend less on. To cite one example, even if business subsidies are ineffective, and money on them could be spent elsewhere, it is rare for the recipients of other government spending to complain about them.

The reluctance to criticize other areas of government spending may explain why the school finance poll hides the important question of where the money should come from. The question the collaborative asked voters obfuscates the issue of whether there are costs for more school spending. In the results of the survey that the group shared, 60 percent of voters said that they would favor “this proposal to change the way schools are funded in Michigan by establishing a standard, per pupil funding formula.” This is a question about per-pupil funding, not funding increases. It was interpreted as an endorsement of funding increases because the description of the proposed funding formula noted that it would increase funding. But the question itself tells little about whether voters want more funding.

The polling firm further asked whether schools receive too much, too little, or just about the right amount of funding, and most respondents said that it was too little. This again provides little information about where the money should come from.

Until there is broad consensus about where schools stand in relation to spending on other things or letting taxpayers keep more of their own money, state lawmakers are going to have to trust their guts when establishing a budget. Polls that leave out other spending priorities won’t reveal whether extra school funding has popular support.