Opinion: Michigan should fund students directly

Tim Kelly
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks about Florida's successful educational programs at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

Just over a year ago, Launch Michigan, an "unprecedented group of business, education, labor, philanthropy, and state and community leaders joined forces to become a top-10 education state," so reads their press release from June 20, 2018.  What have they done to improve education in the last twelve months?


They're still talking. Bill Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, who is part of the initiative, says "the public will have to wait another six months to see what policies Launch Michigan will actually recommend. It's cooking, but it's not ready." It must be some feast they're preparing. No doubt expensive, too.

An echo chamber advice group recently suggested we need less talk and more action on reform, calling for a new leader and a single organization focused on "teachers, equitable funding, governance and charter schools."  Recommendations like these, while sometimes on the mark, speak to a system that is antiquated and incapable of delivering on the promises we seek.

I agree, we need more competent and motivated instructors, and our State Board of Education is a joke, but throwing funds into a broken system seems illogical.

Michigan's lackluster K-12 performance continues to trail behind national leaders like Florida, Massachusetts and Tennessee. Jeb Bush, who led Florida's reforms as governor 20 years ago, spoke recently on Mackinac Island, proposing Michigan, "should be big and bold or go home and let someone else try."

As Fonzi used to say, "Correctamundo!"  Michigan does indeed need to go big and bold, if we are ever to recapture our children's educational and economic future. Unfortunately, most of those calling for change are themselves largely responsible for Michigan's poor performance.

Despite record funding over the last six years or so, I believe we will substantially increase K-12 spending in the near future. Why? Because everyone associated with Launch Michigan, including their business partners, have either directly or indirectly endorsed every recent study that has recommended more spending.

Michigan's current School Aid Budget pays on average just over $8,000 per student. In addition, the state spends hundreds of millions more on foreign language households, special needs students, career and technical education. With additional local taxes and federal funds, average student spending in Michigan schools approximates $12,000. Suffice it to say, then, that our current spending may well exceed what many have heretofore deemed inadequate.

Regardless of how much more we spend on top of the nearly $15 billion we already do, my advice is to stop funding systems and begin funding children. Directly.

If funding individual needs and unique circumstances are the watchwords of every adequacy study, then let's not mince words. Simply giving additional funds to schools in the hopes that individual students' needs will be met and not squandered on the collective is our current modus operandi. Instead, let's give the foundation allowance and any additional funds necessary to guarantee individual improvement directly to the child through an Education Savings Account or ESA. 

These funds, directed by their parents or guardians, could be used to purchase appropriate instruction and support services at any participating public institution, be it a traditional public school, charter, community college or university. Student-centered funding will force public educators to deliver what the student seeks. Next year, after the Supreme Court overturns Blaine and our prohibitions against public funds for private use, we'll talk again.

Tim Kelly is the former Michigan House Education Chair.