Jacques: How to salvage Michigan's school funding study

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The start of school is only a few weeks away in Michigan.

So is the state's decision on which company lands the contract to do a school-funding adequacy study.

Who is selected to conduct this report on how K-12 schools are funded will make a significant difference in what kind of information is collected and how it's used.

The project was spearheaded by Democrats in the Legislature last December. Republicans reluctantly agreed to it in return for Democratic support of the road funding ballot proposal, which failed miserably in May.

But the adequacy study is still alive and well, and the latest budget included half a million for the project. The majority of states of have already done such studies, and the result is often to fuel calls for more money for schools—even though overwhelming research has shown that's not the cure for ailing student performance. In addition, the adequacy reports are frequently fodder for lawsuits against states that are supposedly shortchanging schools.

Expect the same to happen in Michigan, if it isn't careful about whom it chooses.

The Department of Technology, Management and Budget called for bids on a study to "examine the distribution and amount of educational resources, academic performance and other factors of educational policy." The report is due by the end of March.

The department issued a request for proposals last month, and only three firms submitted bids on the project by the Aug. 7 deadline. The state is offering $500,000 to the winner, which the department says it will select by the first week of September.

The three firms are Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, the Anderson Economic Group and Cross & Joftus. APA is behind many of the other states' adequacy studies, and their conclusion is usually that — no surprise — schools need more money. Cross and Joftus also focuses on education-related research.

Patrick Anderson, principal and CEO of the Anderson Economic Group, says he'd approach the study a bit differently — by looking at districts' expenditures and then matching that with their respective performance.

"Some providers are doing a good job and some aren't," says Anderson, the only bidder based in Michigan.

He says his company has the expertise to "separate factors dictating success from those that aren't," and that means looking beyond funding streams.

The company specializes in economic and market research in both the private and public sectors, and has issued numerous reports on K-12 and higher education in Michigan.

"We do real analysis, which sometimes suggests we should increase funding, and sometimes suggests we should shut a program down," Anderson says. Clients have ranged from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to the Michigan Education Association.

The kind of detailed analysis Anderson wants to do probably wouldn't make the Democrats who bargained for the adequacy study very happy, as they were clearly angling for a call for more school funding.

A spokesman for the state budget department says it's not surprising to only get a few bidders on a project like this "given the unique nature of the work."

But the department also didn't do much to solicit bids — especially from companies in the state. Anderson says he only learned about the release of the proposal request when an outside source approached him. And the window for making a bid was just three weeks.

The DTMB is leaving the decision on a bidder to a joint evaluation committee that is comprised of five individuals: one from DTMB's purchasing arm, one from the State Budget Office, one from the Treasury, another from the Department of Education; the last member is a school superintendent.

Gov. Rick Snyder's office has said the study could be a useful tool moving forward, but Snyder also knows that spending more money isn't always the answer.

This study is getting done one way or another. As Anderson says, the end result might as well be more than just lawsuit bait.