Education claims in gov race don't tell full story

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Gov. Rick Snyder's signature more than three years ago on an education funding bill reducing spending $930 million has become an election-year controversy for the Republican incumbent.

At nearly every turn in the gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Mark Schauer has hammered Snyder for what looks like a nearly $1 billion reduction on paper during his first year in office.

But the $930 million figure Schauer points to doesn't tell the whole story of what Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature did in 2011.

Schauer's $1 billion figure is far larger than the actual reduction in public education spending in the 2011-12 school year compared with the prior year.

Lawmakers and Snyder spent an extra $455 million in separate "one-time" funds helping school districts with employee retiree costs and offering $100-per-pupil grants for schools that performed so-called management "best practices," according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

After those additions, overall funding for that single year was reduced $475 million, with $316 million directly attributable to the expiration of one-time federal aid that former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and lawmakers used to temper school funding reductions during the economic recession.

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"It's been proven over and over again he's lying about that particular issue," Snyder said about Schauer Monday after an event in Clinton Township.

Still, Snyder has sidestepped questions about the education funding bill he signed on June 21, 2011.

Instead, he has focused on what the governor has direct control over — state money for education. That amount has increased $1.1 billion from the year he took office from $10.6 billion to $11.7 billion, though the vast majority of the new money — $783 million — goes toward paying a portion of retirement costs for school employees, state records show.

The governor also has blamed his predecessor for propping up school operations with the short-term federal aid — money Schauer voted for while in Congress. "Everyone knew that was short-term money. It went away," Snyder said.

New numbers, same result

Despite push-back from the governor and his allies, Schauer has not backed down from his claim that schools lost $1 billion under Snyder.

Mark Schauer gives a campaign speech at the UAW Region 1 George Merrelli Technical Training Center in Warren, October 13, 2014.

But to justify his campaign rhetoric, Schauer has recently clung to a different set of numbers to arrive at the same figure.

Revenue projections in 2011 showed the state would lose at least $600 million earmarked annually for school aid from Snyder's elimination of the Michigan Business Tax — a $1.8 billion overall elimination of all taxes for 95,000 small and medium-sized businesses.

Democrats and some state budget analysts contend the business tax revenue for schools could have been used to make up for lost federal funds if Snyder and lawmakers had not eliminated the tax.

"If we would have used all of the money in the School Aid Fund that was there, there would have been zero cuts to education," said state Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids. "This was a conscious choice the governor made. He had to drain money out of the School Aid Fund to pay for the corporate tax cut."

The move reduced revenue for schools, Schauer said, along with about $400 million Snyder has "diverted" from the School Aid Fund to pay for public universities and community colleges. The total equals $1 billion, he said.

"It is a fact, no matter what Rick Snyder says, there are less dollars in the per-pupil foundation grant going to our public schools than before he took office," Schauer said Monday after meeting with retired union members in Warren.

The minimum per-pupil grant schools get from the state has increased from $7,146 in fiscal year 2011 — when Snyder took office — to $7,251 this fiscal year, a 1.4 percent increase.

When adjusted for inflation, Schauer's assertion that schools are getting less money for classroom operations is correct. To keep up with inflation over four years, the foundation grant needed to grow 7.4 percent, according to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency.

Schools continue to struggle

David Martell, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials, said his group is grateful for the state's assistance with pension funding.

But districts continue to close buildings, jam more students into classrooms, eliminate specialty programs and even make students walk farther to school to reduce bus routes, Martell said.

"School funding is not keeping up with inflationary costs," he said.

Former state budget director John Nixon defended the governor's decision to focus the majority of new education spending on shoring up the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

Still, Nixon concedes public school operating funds are "extremely tight."

"There's no doubt about it," said Nixon, who left the Snyder administration in March. "But the bottom line is the education system in Michigan was on very shaky ground. If we hadn't done anything, the pension system could have imploded in a few years."

The raging debate in the governor's race over education funding has spilled into legislative races as Democrats rail against their Republican opponents on the same sets of figures.

State Rep. Andrea LaFontaine, R-Columbus Township, said she devotes her office hours to "fact-finding and myth-busting all these campaign attacks" about what Republicans did or didn't to education funding.

"Once you educate people on the issue, then they understand it," said LaFontaine, who faces Democrat Pamela Kraft in the Nov. 4 general election. "Some people, I think, are going with the belief that if you tell a lie long enough, people might start to believe it. But if you have the facts on your side, you'll win every time."