Jacques: Money alone won’t solve school woes

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Are Michigan schools struggling and falling behind other states? Yes.

Is the problem simply a lack of funding? Absolutely not.

That’s not what most Democrats and teachers unions want you to think, however. And you can be sure a report that came out this week calling for more school money will only embolden their claims.

This adequacy study was meant to show how much funding is necessary to educate students effectively. Unfortunately, the state shelled out $400,000 for 224 pages of information that’s not hugely helpful.

The Legislature agreed to this study, pushed by Democrats, in late 2014, in a tradeoff to get bipartisan support for a road funding ballot proposal.

As predicted, the study found schools are getting shortchanged and that funding is becoming more unequal.

Lawmakers should never have agreed to the study in the first place. A quick overview of similar studies in other states shows the reports almost always call for more funding and in some cases have led to drawn out legal battles to force states to increase school finances.

The state’s second error was going with Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, which has done a dozen of these studies in other states and consistently found legislatures don’t give their schools enough. But former state Rep. Brandon Dillon (now Michigan Democratic Party chair) wrote the requirements so specifically that of the three firms that bid on the project, only APA “met” the qualifications.

Patrick Anderson of the Anderson Economic Group bid on the project and had planned on comparing districts’ expenditures with their respective performance. Such an approach could have actually translated into insightful data to help schools improve.

Instead, we have a report that says the ideal amount of spending is $8,667 per student—quite a bit higher than the foundation allowances schools are going to receive this year ($7,511-$8,229). Some districts spend more than that because of money from local property taxes.

The study also calls for spending 30 percent more than the ideal figure for at-risk students and 40 percent more for English language learners.

Of 54 districts APA found especially successful, 19 of these spend about 10 percent less than the $8,667 benchmark. But APA didn’t delve into why.

“The state can spend more on education, but it won’t help students unless that money is spent in effective ways,” says Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

APA stopped short of stating how much more Michigan should invest in schools overall. But that’s not going to quell the calls for increased spending across the board. It probably won’t stop lawsuits either.

Gov. Rick Snyder said he’s looking at the report and wants his recently appointed 21st Century Education Commission to consider the findings in its work this year. Luckily, one of the commission members is Eileen Weiser, a Republican on the State Board of Education. She has done significant research into how Michigan is a top state for funding and teacher salaries but close to the bottom in student achievement.

Something is wrong with that picture. And the answer is far more complicated than a bigger check.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques