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MSU study: Michigan public schools face nation's sharpest decline in state funding

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Funding for Michigan's public schools is insufficient to meet rising education standards, according to a recent studyby researchers at Michigan State University. 

The MSU researchers said Michigan tightened its total spending on K-12 public education more than any other state over a 20 year period ending in 2015.

The study said that after adjusting for inflation, the state's education funding in 2015 was just 82 percent of what it had been 20 years earlier.  The study said, "No other state is close to a decline of this magnitude." 

Senator Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) is the chair of the K-12 and Michigan Department of Education Appropriations and Transportation subcommittees. He said on Stateside Thursday that he was concerned about the report, but doesn't believe it completely tells the whole story.

"There's a lot of challenges Michigan has faced following Proposal A, you know, in terms of the economy, student counts... But overall, we should definitely put more money in education."

The study noted that after adjusting for inflation, total K-12 public school funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015, and per pupil, the decline was 22 percent. Also, state support per at-risk student  plunged by 60 percent.

"Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap. We've been focusing more on accountability and school choice policies," said David Arsen, MSU professor of education policy and lead author of the study. "But to make those policies effective, they have to be matched with adequate funding. And we've been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools."

But Schmidt says the Legislature has not been cutting school funding. "We've been putting more money in... Now it might not always be at the rate of inflation, or whatever metric they're using, but we are continuing to put more money. And it's unrealistic to say, 'Well, we just needed more money.' Where do you get it, when you've had tough economic times?"

The study's authors said the fundamental cause of lower school spending is tax cuts.

"We would have enough revenue to pay for adequate schools if we devoted the same share of state income to supporting education as we did a decade ago," said Arsen.

Declining funding and lower academic performance go hand in hand, according to the study, which found that Michigan ranked last out of all 50 states for improvement in 4th grade math and reading proficiency between 2003 and 2015.

The report calls for an increase of $3.6 billion per year, or a 20% increase. Schmidt says that is not possible.

"One, what are the taxpayers... are they willing to do that, too? Two, I don't know if it's completely an issue of funding. I'm not say not to put more money in," says Schmidt. "More money into education, I think, can be beneficial, but it's not the end-all-be-all." 

Update: Friday, January 25

Stateside's conversation with President of the Michigan State Board of Education, Casandra Ulbrich

President of the Michigan State Board of Education Casandra Ulbrich says the study is right to take inflation into account.

"The money going [into schools] may be increasing, but the cost of everything that schools are funding is actually increasing at a much high rate than that."

Ulbrich says part of the problem lies in the fact that fewer students are enrolling in Michigan schools, while more money is going toward building charter schools.

"That's why we're spending record amounts of money, and we're getting worse results. Because we're educating fewer kids, but it's not getting to where the kids are actually in the classroom. We're spending money on infrastrusture when we really don't need to be doing that," says Ulbrich. "This is a terrible... I would call it a strategy, but the truth is, the state of Michigan doesn't have an education strategy."

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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