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Blame the economy for school cuts

Lester Graham


Getting your budget cut is no fun, and that's exactly what's happened to schools in Michigan. Generally speaking, educators know why that's happened. Michigan's economy tanked and that's affected the tax dollars coming in for schools.

Don Wotruba is with the Michigan Association of School Boards, "Unemployment's higher so, we have less income tax in Michigan, with less money coming in, they're spending less so, less sales tax and all of our property taxes are going down and those are the three main taxes that help fund our schools. With that narrow kind of base of taxes, it directly impacts our students and the kids in our schools."

Wotruba mentioned the three major sources of revenue, but parts of twenty different taxes are collected specifically for schools. Those revenues are down. Many people shrug and say, "It's a tough economy, everybody has to share the burden."

Doug Roberts is the Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. He was also state Treasurer during Governor Engler's administration.

He says when you look at it, Michigan has had the highest or nearly the highest unemployment rate for years now.

"When you have that sort of economy, the idea that somehow there's going to be enough money to run programs that you used to run without a lot more support for increasing the rate of taxes (and I don't think there is at the moment), then my opinion is, it's difficult, it hurts," Roberts said, "and I can understand why they feel it hurts because it's very hard to cut back year after year."

But Doug Roberts says school budget cuts are just part of the economic reality. Nothing's going to change until we get the economy back on track.

If you're a teacher or a school board member or parent of a student, you might not be willing to settle for that economic reality', especially when last year schools were forced to take a cut in the middle of the year, an unexpected $165 per student cut to the fund that pays the bulk of school operations, a three percent cut.

Craig Thiel is with Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan public policy research group. He says educators didn't like it.

"For some people in the education community that was unacceptable. You don't have to look very far to see that cuts in other areas of the state budget, the general fund finance programs, were cut by double that. So, in some respects, schools fared a little better in the short term than the general fund did," Thiel said.

That's the way many legislators view it. Tim Melton is a Democratic State Representative from Pontiac. He Chairs the House Education Committee.

"When we look at this whole funding issue, the cut last year was three-percent. A lot of the budgets saw 10, 12, 15-percent cuts. So, $165 may sound like a lot, but in reality the School Aid budget actually fared quite well," Melton said.

And that $165 cut could have been as much as a $450 per student cut if federal stimulus funds hadn't filled part of the gap. Those federal funds run out next year.

State legislators are quick to note this new fiscal year restored eleven dollars of that cut. Many educators say, "Hey, adding eleven bucks back to a $165 cut is still a cut. Schools are still getting less per student than they were two years ago."

Representative Melton seems a little exasperated with that view.

"Well, so, it's the only budget in the state that got an increase this year, that they're still saying it's a reduction. It's like they're in a whole separate world," Melton said.

But educators in Michigan say they only know that schools are hurting.

Tom White chairs a group called S-O-S, Save Our Students Schools and State. It's a coalition of education managers, the P-T-A and others.

"People are frustrated because legislators run on a platform of saying Education is my top priority.' At least they used to. And yet, when they got into Lansing and they dealt with the budget, we weren't treated like a top priority. We were given less than inflationary increases or we were given no increases at all and told You should feel lucky because you're not being cut as badly as some other parts of the budget,'" White said.

And White says if you're worried about the economy in Michigan, cutting money for schools is not the answer.

"Everybody knows (to) get a good education. The more you learn, the more you earn. I mean, it's good for kids; it's good for communities. It's what draws business to a state or it's what draws businesses like Google to an Ann Arbor. So, we see it as a fundamental economic development issue. We need the investment in order to make Michigan an attractive place and do the things for kids that we want to do."

At the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Doug Roberts says that might be true, but in the short term it comes down to can we afford it?

"I would argue any policy, any policy debate right now is: will it help or hurt reviving Michigan's economy?" Roberts asks. "And that should be the fundamental question because everything else will flow from it. I'm absolutely convinced that the problems - not just in schools, anyplace else in the budget - will become easier as we put people back to work and revenues begin to increase. That is our problem."

Educators say money for schools needs to be stable no matter what the economy. Many say that means more revenue - expanding the tax base. Unless the schools can get the people to strongly support that idea, the legislature likely is not going to give that serious consideration anytime soon, and definitely not during an election year.

RELATED LINKS:Douglas Roberts, Institute for Public Policy & Social Research: A Retrospective Look at School Finance Reform
Mackinac Center for Public Policy: School Funding MythsSOS: Save Our Students Schools and State

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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