Although the state’s revenues fluctuate with the economy, the need to fund public education does not. Frustrated with the state’s structural budget crisis, members of the K-16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future are campaigning to make sure the state’s public schools and universities receive adequate funding. The group announced this week that it has gathered enough signatures to put a proposal on the November that would guarantee K-16 education funding increases annually on par with inflation. The legislation would also reduce the funding gap among districts. The proposal could become one of many ballot initiatives on this year’s ballot, right alongside the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and a statewide ban on dove hunting. If the coalition succeeds in persuading lawmakers to make education a priority, changes can be made to benefit schools before next year’s budget allocations are set later this year.
The disparities in K-12 education funding among districts were reduced somewhat when voters passed Proposal A in 1994, which guaranteed a minimum level of per-pupil spending and used the state’s sales tax to fund public schools. Before the reforms, local property taxes paid for public education, a system that benefited only those students in wealthy communities. But because base figures for how much a district would receive per student under Proposal A were based on previous funding levels, per-pupil funding ranges from the state’s minimum $6,875 to more than $10,000.
The link between suffering public school districts and lower funding is clear. As long as these inequalities persist, children across the state will be denied access to an equal education. If anything, the state’s poorest school districts should get more state funding per pupil to help disadvantaged students to catch up to their more affluent peers.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm one-upped the K-16 Coalition’s announcement with a proposal of her own – that the state increase per-pupil funding by $25 across the state. But her call seems little more than a political move designed to win popularity and slow the coalition’s momentum. A minor across-the-board funding increase does little to help K-12 students and does nothing to reduce funding disparities or address higher education funding, as the coalition’s ballot proposal would.
The K-16 Coalition has wisely chosen to first use its petition to gain leverage with state legislators. Lawmakers should do their job and address the demands of their constituents, rather than tossing $25 at the state’s students and throwing up their hands.
State legislators must realize that the quality of all publicly funded schools is tied to their funding. Dedicated elementary school teachers or a perfect curriculum can only do so much when the state is not behind a school district with adequate funds. Public universities can do their best to keep afloat while the state slashes its appropriations, but after a certain point, hefty tuition increases or reduced quality of education become their only options.
Over the past decade, legislators have used both economic good times and bad times to justify tax cuts to a level that, as shown by recent deficits, are no longer sustainable. Adequately funding Michigan’s schools may require an increase in tax rates to ensure other programs that receive state funds, like Medicare, do not suffer.
A serious commitment to fund Michigan’s schools is vital to building and retaining the highly educated workforce needed to reshape the state’s economy. But more importantly, all students across the state deserve equal access to a high-quality education, and it will take the sort of reforms the K-16 Coalition has proposed to make that happen.