The Granholm administration recently announced the broad strokes of an interesting deal for Michigan public schools: In return for increasing efforts to share services and curb costs, Granholm will attempt to provide compliant school districts with an extra $175 per pupil for the coming year. Additionally, secondary schools would be eligible for a further boost of $50 per pupil for every student who completes a college preparatory curriculum. This seemingly small increase in per-pupil funding would translate into an approximately $280 million shot in the arm for Michigan’s K-12 public schools, boosting their total budget by just over 2 percent. Should schools fail to consolidate services and administrative functions of their own accord, however, Granholm wants the power to force consolidation of some school districts.
The proposal is praiseworthy for its significant enhancement of public school funding, and points to positive momentum towards improving the caliber of education in Michigan. But at least equal, if not exceeding, the promise of this proposal is the difficulty that any school consolidation effort — no matter how justifiable — is likely to face.
Consolidation is generally met with fervent, widespread opposition — both from affected citizens as well as from school administrators. Of course, because a large share of the savings generated by consolidation come from the elimination of redundant administrative positions, it is unlikely that superintendents and other administrators would ever champion such plans.
For the time being, districts are much more supportive of efforts that fall short of consolidation, such as increased service and resource sharing, which is exactly what the current proposal appears to request. This highlights the political shrewdness of Granholm’s proposition, dodging consolidation for the time being and betting that administrators will be encouraged to make tough, yet necessary budget cuts by the large funding carrot that she has dangled in front of them.
Should districts fail to take advantage of the deal, however, both Granholm and a number of K-12 schools will be in a very difficult position. Forced consolidation of small districts has been stated as her next move, but this is treacherous and unpopular ground to tread on. Consider the state of Arkansas, which in 2002 enacted legislation to involuntarily consolidate 56 small school districts in the wake enormous budget shortfalls. Not only were consolidation efforts met with great public resistance, but a number of angry districts have filed legal challenges that have slowed district merging to a crawl. A heavy-handed state-level intervention by Granholm into regional education would not only be riddled with difficulty, but also be likely to generate significant public backlash in the period running up to a gubernatorial election year.
At of now, many crucial details regarding the proposal remain unclear. For example, it has not been clearly stated exactly what or how much a district would have to do in order to receive the funding boost and avoid forced consolidation. Additionally, the proposal also lacks a clear statement for secondary schools regarding what constitutes a college preparatory curriculum. Finally, and perhaps most important of all in light of recent broken funding promises to institutions of higher education, the proposal is not guaranteed — school districts could make the tough cuts yet fail to receive the promised funding increase.
And yet Granholm’s proposal remains promising, both for its boost to funding for public education and also for its potential to circumvent arduous and unpopular forced consolidation efforts by giving school districts the opportunity — and the financial incentive — to generate local solutions for local problems of inefficiency.
It is imperative, however, that the governor maintain an evenhanded approach in funding education. K-12 schools are important, but successful high school graduates must have quality, affordable colleges and universities available in Michigan if the state hopes to reap long-lasting benefits from educational investment. Granholm should be commended for lending a hand to K-12, but it is worrisome when her other proposal would take away essential funds from higher education.