Opinion: Value pupils over potholes

Robert Norton

Anyone who has ever been tasked with balancing a tight budget knows how difficult it can be to allocate scarce resources. In the end, you struggle to find the most cost-effective means of achieving the maximum good. Of course, the definition of the “maximum good” can be very subjective. While the budget battle in Lansing may be over for now, it provided keen insight into the priorities of our governor. 

Whitmer slashed additional funding for Michigan charter schools in an attempt to get more funding to fix roads, Norton writes.

On Sept. 30, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget slashed all additional funding for charter schools in Michigan, while at the same time approving a 3% increase for most other public schools. This was a rather bizarre place to cut fiscal corners if her true objective was to provide the maximum amount of education for inner-city children for the taxpayer’s money.

Besides being fiscally foolish — most charter schools already receive 20% less per pupil funding than other public schools — it is a cruel place for the governor to exercise her veto power when it comes to the possibility of providing many of these children a chance of escaping the cycle of poverty that plagues so many inner-city areas.

Throughout history, education has provided the best means of not only providing an income for those students fortunate enough to receive it, but it also provides a means toward living a more enjoyable and fulfilling life.

Michigan’s charter schools are on track to help many of these children receive a better education, and thus a chance at a better life. According to data released by the Michigan Department of Education, the 12 highest-scoring open enrollment high schools in Detroit, as evaluated by SAT scores, are charter schools. The top nine schools, in terms of college enrollment, are charter schools. The sixth best high school in the entire state of Michigan, Black River Public School, is a charter school. Those are staggering figures.

As a result of the continued improvements in student achievement at these schools, Detroit residents have certainly developed a strong appreciation for charters. In fact, 59% of all students in the Detroit area attend a charter school.

A classroom.

Charter schools play an important role in serving minority students in Michigan, too. In 2017, half of the enrolled students in Michigan’s 294 charter schools were African American, 67% were minorities and 70% qualified as low income. By contrast, only 18%  of Michigan’s public school students are African American, 34% list themselves as minority status and only 43% qualify as low income.

Thus the governor, with the stroke of her pen, stated that spending on these students is not as important as trying to find more money to make good on campaign hyperbole that every street should be free of potholes — a promise that the governor now says she needs a mere $2.5 billion to fulfill.

After months of political tug of war, in a deal recently announced, the governor decided to stop playing politics with children’s lives. However, it remains clear that we, as taxpayers, need to let our elected representatives know that we value pupils over potholes. It’s essential we continue to provide charter schools, at a minimum, with the same percentage increase as other public schools, and keep open the door toward a better education for thousands of Michigan’s students.  

Robert Norton is general counsel of Hillsdale College but expresses these views in his personal capacity.