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Disinvestment, structural flaws harm Michigan schools
By: John Austins and Casandra Ulbrich
October 27, 2013
Only a handful of districts are in distress because of poor or corrupt management or because they weren’t willing to make hard choices. Almost all districts and the students they serve are under stress because of fundamental structural reasons — chief among them cuts in real education funding.

A recent analysis by researchers at Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center for the board describes a near “perfect storm” of demographic shifts, structural flaws in school organization and funding, and long-term disinvestment that now combine — 20 years after Proposal A — to send 55 school districts into deficit, and force many more to cut teachers, gut programs, and in some cases close whole schools. The major factors driving the school finance crisis include:

Funding Cuts: Adjusted for inflation, Michigan’s K-12 funding has declined 12 percent since 2004. Taxes dedicated to education have been eliminated, and the School Aid Fund, once reserved for K-12, is now used to pay for higher education and preschool. Dedicated at-risk student funding has been capped since 2009 and failed to keep pace with the growing number of eligible students.

Declining Enrollment: In the past 10 years, Michigan’s schools saw enrollment drop 10 percent. Seventy percent of traditional public schools and 37 percent of charters have had declining enrollment. This is due to population trends (out-migration and fewer school-age children), the proliferation of new charter and cyber schools and expanded cross-district school choice.

New school creation: Michigan has allowed numerous new schools to be created with no strategy or quality control, even as existing schools are financially stretched. It has seen tremendous growth in charters, with 277 charter schools in operation in FY2013 enrolling more than 8.5 percent of K-12 students. Many charters are high quality, but many more provide a poor or worse education than existing schools and leave them with diminished resources to serve more challenging populations.

Pensions costs, buildings and technology: Ballooning pension costs and limited state support for buildings and technology have contributed to declining school budgets.

These factors mean that many Michigan school districts endured a 25-30 percent funding decline. Michigan schools are in distress because of disinvestment, enrollment declines and structural issues in how we organize and fund education.

Members of the State Board of Education are working with educational and political leaders to identify the issues and design effective responses to better support students and the educators we count on to teach them.

John Austin is President of the Michigan State Board of Education. Board Vice President Casandra Ulbrich grew up in Yale and attended public school there.

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