News Story

‘The Nation’ Blames Michigan GOP For Cuts In School Budgets Signed By Dem Governor

Cuts came during single-state recession; funding only higher since GOP gained trifecta in 2011

A writer from The Nation magazine has reported that Republicans are responsible for cuts in past Michigan school budgets. There’s a significant problem with that statement: The only reductions that have come in the past 17 years occurred under a Democratic governor.

Here’s how it happened.

In the state of Michigan’s budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year, the total number of state dollars appropriated for K-12 public education was lower than it was in the previous year. The same thing happened in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years. These three years were the only times in the past 17 years that the number of state dollars appropriated for schools was reduced, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.

In 2003-04, Michigan state government was run by a Democratic governor with a Republican House and Senate.

In 2008-09 and 2009-10, Democrats controlled the state House and still held the governor’s office.

Yet the writer for the left-leaning publication blamed the Republican Party for school spending cuts. In 2010, Michigan elected a Republican governor, House and Senate. In every year since, state spending on K-12 education has increased.

That includes the current school budget, approved last fall by a newly elected Democratic governor with a Republican House and Senate.

Jennifer Berkshire wrote in a story for The Nation, “But the GOP’s increasing hostility to public education has also presented an opportunity for Democrats. In key battleground states, Democrats are making inroads by tying their GOP opponents to controversial education policies. In Michigan and Wisconsin, voter backlash against GOP spending cuts to school spending. ...”

When contacted, Berkshire defended her claim of GOP spending cuts by citing two third-party reports.

The first was a Bridge Magazine column by Michigan State University professor David Arsen and doctoral student Tanner Delpier.

That published feature cited a component of school funding called the per-pupil foundation allowance, and it referenced statistics labeled as “total general fund revenue.” But the latter was not defined in a way that would support the conclusions it was said to support, and foundation allowance dollars are only one component of the funding schools get from the state.

Specifically, as shown in the piece, “total general fund revenue” appears to include federal dollars over which the state has no control. The amount of federal funding for Michigan schools has been stagnant-to-declining for the last dozen years.

For example, Michigan received $2.16 billion in federal funds for K-12 education in 2008-09, an amount that spiked with President Barack Obama’s stimulus spending plan. In Michigan’s current (2019-20) budget, the number of federal dollars was $1.75 billion. The Michigan Legislature does not control how much federal money the state receives, so it would be unfair to blame the legislative majority in state government for reductions in federal K-12 funding.

And the per-pupil foundation allowance cited by The Nation does not include billions of state dollars in other categories that schools receive every year.

The amounts are significant. For example, in 2019-20, the foundation allowance accounted for 80% of Plymouth-Canton Community School district’s $136.3 million in total state funding.

Foundation allowance dollars follow the students to whatever Michigan public school district they attend, but districts receive millions more from the state for things like special education, at-risk students and school employees’ pension benefits. In the Plymouth-Canton example, those three line items accounted for $23.8 million in state funding, and they were not part of the foundation allowance.

When all categories are included, the number of state dollars authorized for K-12 education increased every year from 2011-12 to 2018-19, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency. The number is also up in the current budget.

Berkshire also cited a graph of Michigan school funding that ran in Bloomberg Businessweek. The graph has no explanation of what the figures shown include, whether they apply to state or federal funds or a combination, or whether they refer only to foundation allowance dollars.

The item does cite MSU’s Arsen as the source, which probably means the 2019 work he wrote that tracked Michigan school funding from 1994 to 2015.

Arsen’s study only covered a portion of the eight-year period — from 2011 through 2018 — during which Michigan Republicans enjoyed control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office (a trifecta). It did not include 2016 or later years. Arsen’s report went back to 1994, covering many other years during which the GOP did not control either the House or the governor’s office.