Education funding in Michigan is a real patchwork affair. The dollars directed toward schools comes from many different sources and the formulas seem to be ever changing since legislators in Lansing can't seem to settle on a long-term plan other than regular deductions.
No one could have been too surprised last week when Michigan State University researchers reported that our state ranks last in revenue growth for K-12 education, with per-pupil funding declining by 15 percent since 1995. Essentially, cuts here and shifts there, plus the increased cost of services districts feel they must provide their students, far outweigh the trivial increases legislators have approved in recent years.
Is it possible Lansing's preoccupation with things like transparency reporting and consolidating services has created a negativity that's trickled down to the local level and sullied voters' opinion toward public education?
This past November, three local districts successfully sought renewals of their non-homestead millage proposals but when the votes were tallied, the margin of victory wasn't exactly large. In fact, 40 percent or more of voters in Almont, Dryden and Imlay City voted against the operating millages. That's a pretty sizeable chunk of folks who don't think the schools deserve even a small amount of money to keep the lights on and pay their teachers.
Keep in mind that non-homestead operating millages make up a small sliver of a district's annual revenues. For instance, in Imlay City their 18 mills only translates to less than $2 million in an approximately $20 million annual budget. The catch is that the state requires districts to have these millages on the books so as to receive the full per-pupil funding that comes from the state.
Another matter of note, as the name suggests "non-homestead" millages only levy a tax on land other than primary residences, like commercial and rental properties. Since this is primarily a "bedroom community" it's safe to say that a large majority of voters who came to the polls in November will never pay a dime towards this particular millage. It's likely that many voters don't understand that distinction and view any tax as "bad."
In December, during their Lame Duck session, the legislature redirected $180 million in sales tax revenues away from the School Aid Fund towards roads and environmental cleanup. That means fewer dollars for school staff to properly educate the next generation of Michiganders. As a result, proficiency scores will probably still appear dismal and the voters' opinion of public education will continue to erode.
We should be beyond the point of picking apart school budgets and test scores at the local level and instead lock the spotlight on Lansing for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
Our state elected leaders need to develop a simple and ample funding system for public education that shouldn't be constantly poked, prodded or gutted. It's like they need to justify their existence by constantly messing with the formula or by dreaming up yet another ranking/grading system for schools without letting other, still-new concepts play out first.