Lack of spending Michigan’s K-12 problem? Probably not

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan’s public schools are lackluster. Students here continue to fall behind on national standardized tests.

So more money must be the answer, right?

That’s the solution most often given by teachers unions, school administrators and Democrats.

But plenty of studies, including one done in conjunction with Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, have shown that there is no strong correlation between spending more on schools and the results those schools get.

That didn’t stop some of Michigan’s top Democrats from pushing to attach a so-called “adequacy study” to last December’s road funding ballot bill. These studies are usually code words for seeking increased spending on schools.

“They are often proposed by groups who just want more money spent,” says Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. “All kids are different. There isn’t one magic price.”

Grand Rapids Rep. Brandon Dillon, who recently resigned his post to head the Michigan Democratic Party, was one of the leading proponents.

And Dems got their GOP counterparts in the Legislature to sign off on this during the lame duck negotiations over Prop 1.

Even though the road tax hike failed miserably in May, the adequacy study was not tie-barred to the proposal’s success.

That means the state still has to follow through with the study.

And it is.

The Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget has issued a request for proposals to conduct a study of the Michigan public school system and make funding recommendations.

The study is to “examine the distribution and amount of educational resources, academic performance and other factors of educational policy,” according to the department.

The idea is to figure out the correct level of funding for the state’s public schools. The state budget included $500,000 for the report, which is supposed to be finished by the end of March. Bids are due by Aug. 7.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, says Michigan is one of only a dozen states that hasn’t completed an adequacy study. But in the states that do have them, they are often used to support filing lawsuits to demand increased funding.

“This is a huge mistake,” says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, of the adequacy study. He’s one of the leading scholars in the economics of education and he thinks the amount of money spent in schools is not related to learning.

Hanushek contends that these studies are a waste and “have no bearing on what is needed to improve achievement of students in the state.”

Michigan already spends $13 billion a year on K-12 schools. And it’s not getting a great return on investment.

Eileen Weiser, one of two Republicans on the State Board of Education, has been getting the word out about the disparity between funding in Michigan and student achievement. Research shows that the state is in the top nine in the U.S. for school funding and teacher salaries but in the bottom quartile for student achievement.

Compare that with Massachusetts, which ranks 34th in the country for spending on schools (when linked to per-capita income), yet tops the U.S. in student achievement.

Gov. Rick Snyder is also very aware of this disparity, however. So Republicans can take some solace that his budget department is spearheading the adequacy study.

Snyder is all about getting a better return on taxpayer investment in education.

If the study is done right, it could actually shed some light on why there is a gap in spending and results.

Some education reform-minded groups are pushing for the study to be done by consultants who aren’t biased in favor of higher education spending. Who wins the bid could make a big difference on how the study is done, and its usefulness.

If Michigan is going to drop half a million on this study, it might as well learn something that can positively impact students.