For all the recent chatter about Michigan’s urgent need for a brain-based economy, little of it has translated into policy changes. But now, finally, that may be changing. A proposal to guarantee at least inflationary increases in funding for Michigan’s school districts, community colleges and public universities will likely appear on the ballot next fall. Yet far from backing a proposal that promises to prevent the state from cutting funding from the public universities, the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan recently withdrew from the group pushing the initiative. It is true that the K-16 initiative could further complicate the state’s budget process and threaten funding for other state programs. But it is also true that the state desperately needs to increase its commitment to education, particularly higher education – and the K-16 initiative may be the only way to ensure that investment occurs.

Sarah Royce

The K-16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future has presented the legislature with hundreds of thousands of signatures petitioning for mandatory funding increases for the state’s public schools to ensure that education funding keeps up with inflation. While the legislature has 40 days to act on the initiative before it is automatically placed on the November ballot, Republican leaders have indicated that they have no intention to bring the proposal to a floor vote.

With the ongoing demise of Michigan’s manufacturing base an unavoidable reality, the state needs to build a better educated workforce able to attract and work in the knowledge-based jobs of the 21st century if it hopes to return to prosperity. Yet the state government, faced with a structural budget deficit and unwilling to increase taxes, has instead failed to adequately fund the state’s schools. The budget woes have been particularly harsh on its public universities, which are only now seeing small nominal boosts in funding after years of cuts.

Opponents of the K-16 initiative have focused their arguments largely on K-12 schools, claiming that those schools have been funded well enough. They invariably decline to address the positive effect the initiative would have on funding for the state’s universities, which have been forced to raise tuition drastically in recent years due to the lack of sufficient state support. Indeed, a recent Detroit News article reported that Michigan families shell out twice as much of their income for state university tuition than those fortunate enough to live in states with adequate university funding.

It is against this background that the curious announcement came last month that the Presidents Council, which represents the leadership of the state’s 15 public universities, has withdrawn entirely from the K-16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future. While the Council will not oppose the K-16 initiative, it will not support it either. Mike Boulus, the executive director of the Presidents Council, told the Gongwer News Service that the initiative would threaten the state’s general fund by taking more of it out of lawmakers’ control.

Abstruse concerns over the integrity of legislative control of the general fund seem out of place given the dire situation facing Michigan’s economy and schools. It is true that a petition drive supporting a legislative initiative to require mandatory increases to education funding is a blunt and dangerous instrument. In a republican government, the people’s representatives should generally be trusted to handle their constituents’ business responsibly. Yet Michigan’s legislature, paralyzed by partisan politics and bickering over insignificant issues, has been unable to address the state’s structural budget crisis effectively.

The passage of the K-16 initiative could conceivably make that crisis worse. Faced with a requirement to keep school funding in line with inflation, legislators – particularly those afflicted with the unfortunate conviction that just one more tax cut will restore Michigan to a lost golden age – will be tempted to slash other necessary programs rather than raise the revenue needed to fulfill the state’s many obligations.

That’s a risk, however, that Michigan may have to take. Past appeals to get the legislature to enact adequate funding for education on its own have fallen on deaf ears. Any reasonable assessment of what the state needs to do to revive itself points to the central importance of improving education. The grassroots K-16 initiative may not be the best public policy ever created, but it’s far better than anything that’s come out of Lansing in recent memory.

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