Opinion: Whitmer misrepresented school funding woes

Ben DeGrow
Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State speech to a combined chamber Tuesday evening, February 12, 2019, in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Lansing.

During her State of the State speech, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out the story of an education crisis that could be solved by more money. The problem is the story doesn’t add up.

Whitmer correctly identified Michigan’s pronounced struggles with helping students learn and achieve. Less than half of students are reading at grade level. But along the way, she distorted the picture of Michigan’s school funding history and erred in suggesting that more money is the key to helping schools turn the corner.

The governor’s funding claims come from a report released last month by Michigan State University researchers. She was not far off in pointing out that our state is near the bottom in funding growth since the 1990s.

Yet even factoring in a prolonged one-state recession that drove the trend, Whitmer was incorrect to say that our state’s per-pupil funding has declined by 15 percent over that time. She may have misstated a claim from the MSU report that did not account for declining numbers of students.

Even so, relying on the MSU report misleads in other key ways. Most importantly, the report based its claims on an unusual metric that adjusts changing dollar values over time to the average growth of state and local government spending across the nation. This creates an exceptionally high and unrealistic bar for lawmakers and taxpayers.

The result looks far less bleak if you measure changing dollar values based on the economic conditions facing school employees and the people who fund the system. It also helps to include the rest of the story.

The federal data source MSU researchers used to compare K-12 per-pupil funding across all states ends in 2015, with Michigan ranked 24th nationally. But our state’s numbers are available for two more years. Michigan’s K-12 funding hit an all-time high in 2017 — over $13,000 per student.

In fact, our state did not slash school revenues by 15 percent over the past 25 years. Instead, using local prices as the measure of changing dollar values, per-pupil revenues increased by 17 percent from 1995 to 2017.

As acknowledged in a new report by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council, the state’s school funding has outpaced inflation since the Great Recession.

Yes, many local districts have not felt the full effect of recent funding boosts.

Some revenues have been set aside to help pay for generous pension promises made in the past. Meanwhile, the state’s 56 intermediate school districts have been absorbing disproportionate shares of the funds. Since 2004, these regional bureaucracies have doubled their share of state education revenues and have increased from 6 percent of all education spending to 10 percent.

Whitmer observed that Michigan’s childhood literacy rate has lost more ground than any other state. But the struggle is not directly connected to financial trends. The decline has occurred both during times of recession-based funding cuts and post-recession funding growth.

Schools get different results from the resources they use. A 2016 Mackinac Center analysis comparing each school’s spending with its academic achievement found more money didn’t lead to better results for students on 27 of 28 different academic measures.

Nor do spending trends outside Michigan offer a promising path for our overall stagnant results. Of the 10 states that made the biggest test score gains between 2003 and 2015, six finished in the bottom 11 for funding increases. During the same 12-year period, New York paralleled Michigan’s poor math and reading achievement trends, but its schools took in far more money. To match New York’s rate of funding growth, Michigan schools would have needed an extra $7.5 billion over the $19.5 billion received in 2015.

That amount more than doubles what the MSU authors say would get our state to an adequate level of education funding. Whitmer’s upcoming budget request will soon make clear how much more money she seeks.

As the education budget continues to grow, state leaders should look for ways to make sure that dollars follow students rather than end up in bureaucracies. Simply adding more funds, without addressing how they are allocated, creates a prescription for frustration that ultimately will lead back to a push for more tax dollars to cure lingering woes.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Mich.