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Streamlining our public schools is a smart move

Virtually everybody agrees Michigan has too many public school districts. Some are too small to provide adequate educational opportunities for their students, in part because they have difficulty coming up with enough revenue to operate properly.

The legislature recently passed a law to allow two of the weakest of these districts, Buena Vista and Inkster, to be dissolved.

But Michigan has a lot more districts running deficits, and the situation is expected to get worse. The root of the problem is this: We can’t decide whether we want primary and secondary education to be a state or a local responsibility.

So we have created a hybrid situation which in many ways is the worst of all worlds. Before Proposal A was passed in 1994, schools were locally funded and controlled. How many resources were available depended mostly on how much the residents were willing to tax themselves. But some poorer districts couldn’t keep up.

So, Proposal A provided for schools to be funded mainly by a per-pupil grant from the state. School districts could still supplement this with millage money, but there were strict limits on how much they could raise. For a while, this helped poorer districts, though from the start, it punished districts where the residents could and would have been willing to tax themselves more for better schools. 

But when students started to flee for charters, the schools began to be drained of resources. In rural areas, when population fell, much the same thing happened. The system is broken.

State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan knows this, and has suggested two good and sensible proposalsto help fix things. For one, he suggests going to a system of county-wide districts. That would reduce the total number of Michigan districts from almost 550 to 83.

If that doesn’t fly, he suggests at least trying a system where the current districts remain, but various functions would be centralized, such as food service, transportation systems, and curriculum and staff training and development.

There is no question that would save money by achieving economies of scale. This was a good time to put these ideas out there; house and senate school aid subcommittees have a joint meeting later this month.

But the main trouble with Flanagan’s ideas is this: the legislature. Though a county-wide system makes sense, no lawmaker wants to have to tell his constituents that he voted to abolish their beloved if impoverished Happy Trails district. 

Politically, consolidating functions should be easier. But there are legions of bureaucrats out to resist change. Yesterday, for example, Don Wotruba of the Michigan Association of School Boards said that economies of scale are not necessarily good.  

Right. What Flanagan ought to do is meet with the quadrant--the governor and the legislative leadership of both house and senate, and get them to push a package consolidating systems.

These are reforms that could make everybody look good, most of all our lawmakers, who haven’t been able to agree on much lately. The reality is this: Unless the leadership is committed to push something through, it’s almost certain nothing will happen.

And our schools, and public education, and Michigan’s hopes for a better future will continue to decline. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst.  Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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