Jacques: Don’t take easy way out on school reform

Ingrid Jacques

Michigan is at an education crossroads. As its public schools continue to plummet in performance, state leaders can either demand proven accountability measures and smart investments — or they can take the easy way out.

In this case the easy way is to call for more money. And that’s exactly what school unions and administrators are doing. The State Board of Education is also singing that tune.

The Democrat-majority board was easily swayed by an adequacy study that came out a few weeks ago, calling for more funding. Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, which conducted the study, presented the findings to the board last week.

The report was supposed to highlight how much money schools need to teach their students effectively. And like the vast majority of the studies conducted in other states, Michigan’s came back showing lack of funding as the culprit.

Board President John Austin, who is running for re-election, was particularly enthusiastic about the results.

“Study after study shows our kids are falling behind,” he wrote in a fundraising email. “They all tell us we are not adequately funding student learning and providing the support to teachers and educators to do their job. It’s time we get serious about financing education in Michigan.”

Austin is right about how Michigan students are falling behind. Studies have shown how the state’s students are often in the bottom 10 for performance in key subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And that includes all students — regardless of race or income.

But he’s wrong when he tries to pin most of the blame on money — and a Republican governor and Legislature. This year’s School Aid Fund budget has increased to over $14 billion; students across the state are getting a boost.

Is there a magic number?

It’s helpful to look at how Michigan compares with other states that are getting good returns on investment.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 Michigan came in 20th with $12,856 in total K-12 per-pupil revenue (state, local and federal funding). Massachusetts ranked eighth with $17,896 per student. Yet Tennessee, another state often upheld for the academic progress it’s making, is 46th at $9,284.

When a state’s personal income data is thrown into the mix, Michigan lands at 23rd — and Massachusetts falls to 29th. Tennessee is 47th.

Both Massachusetts and Tennessee (along with the majority of other states) outperform Michigan on national tests.

It’s obviously not just a money problem.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston also got on board with the adequacy study, calling it a good start, but he included caveats, suggesting longer school years and more professional development for educators.

“We can’t just pour more money into the current way of doing things,” Whiston said in a statement.

Massachusetts didn’t rise to the highest-achieving state overnight. It started two decades ago crafting strong accountability measures and a detailed budget plan — spearheaded by state business leaders. This group, which still exists, created budget proposals for a wide range of districts. While the state did increase funding as part of these reforms, it targeted the money to the districts that needed it most — accounting for poverty and special education.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, warned against Michigan’s adequacy study. As an expert in the economics of education, he has shown that it takes much more than increased funding to influence performance.

Yet he highlights Massachusetts as a state that was able to reap rewards from its larger school investment.

“Massachusetts combined strong standards, assessment, and accountability with increased funding,” Hanushek has found. “The basic problem with most school finance systems, both those in existence and those proposed, is that funding is separated from education policy.”

If Michigan wants to see the same results, it’s going to have to do the hard work that these role model states did. Otherwise, any additional money poured into education won’t make any difference.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques