I have no idea what to make of this year’s election results. Republicans won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, but lost a House race in New York. Maine banned gay marriage, allowed the dispensing of medical marijuana and said no to a limit on government spending. If there’s some trend in there, I fail to see it. So instead of making some broad generalization about how this election reflects the country’s mood, I’m going to zoom in on just one vote — the decisive defeat of the Regional Enhancement Millage in Washtenaw County.
The millage would have raised property taxes in Washtenaw County to solve a budget deficit of several million dollars and generate $30 million for the county each year for five years. Property owners would pay an additional $2 for every $1,000 of taxable assets, meaning that taxes would have increased by about 11.4 percent. But the millage was defeated, with 60 percent of voters in opposition.
Why? Washtenaw County residents clearly didn’t think they could afford the tax increase, even for schools. Indeed, annarbor.com quoted an Ypsilanti resident as saying, “I took a big pay cut … I just couldn’t afford to pay more, as much as I would have liked to.” It’s likely that this was the prevailing sentiment among those voting no.
But because school funding can only come from one tax source or another, saying “we can’t afford it” is the same as saying “we are spending too much.” The only question, then, is this: Are these voters right in thinking that Michigan spends enough on education?
Gov. Jennifer Granholm seemed to agree with them when she vetoed some of the funding for K-12 education last week in the final version of the state’s budget for fiscal year 2010. As if realizing for the first time that the state is broke, Granholm cut per pupil funding for schools by at least $292 per student. But this paints a bleaker portrait than Michigan deserves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 data, Michigan spends $9,912 per pupil — so per-pupil funding is really only decreasing by three percent. Considering that Michigan was already above the national average, our schools probably aren’t as badly off as feared.
But the Census Bureau data also provides an answer to my original question of whether Michigan spends too much on education. As it turns out, only eight states had more revenue than Michigan to spend on schools. When the revenue sources were broken down into federal, state and local sources, Michigan moved to fifth place for percentage of revenue being generated at the state level. This means that the percentage of revenue for public education being generated by Michigan taxpayers is greater than in 45 other states. Does Michigan really seem like it’s financially secure enough to give more money to education than 45 of its neighbors?
The gut reaction to this might be, “Well, at least they’re spending lots of money on top-of-the-line textbooks, teaching materials, and facilities.” But the real cost of education is employee compensation. Indeed, according to the Daily, the Ann Arbor school district spends 85 percent of its funds on compensating employees. And according to the Census Bureau data, Michigan’s public school employees receive the seventh highest salary and benefit packages of all teachers in the country.
All these numbers show that Michigan clearly isn’t lacking in its funding of primary education — and that its public teachers are well paid compared with other states. Add in the fact that public school teachers nationwide make 61 percent more than private school teachers nationwide, and what we have are some teachers who certainly don’t need increased state funding to survive.
Similarly, it does not “take a millage,” as the pro-millage group’s slogan argued, to close budget gaps. We don’t need to fire anybody just because we didn’t pass the millage. We don’t need to reduce curricula, downgrade textbooks, increase class sizes or cut arts programs. We simply need to pay our public teachers — who are already paid better than those in other states, and vastly better than private school teachers — slightly less. This isn’t an unreasonable request, as workers in other sectors across the country have already accepted salary cuts in the face of an inhospitable economy — and in Michigan, especially.
This isn’t about the kids. Michigan can maintain the quality of its educational system if its employees will accept compromises.
Robert Soave is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.