(Editor's note: This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Detroit News on Nov. 4, 2009.)

Michigan's school funding debate has been cast as a choice between two ideas: Budget cuts or tax hikes. Yet there is a $600 million alternative that has been ignored by key players in the debate.

Taxpayers should take note because the failure to explore this option suggests any tax increase for education will be wasted.

In the next few months, the U.S. Department of Education will dish out $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" money to the states. Michigan would be more likely to receive $600 million of this money if it adopted four reforms: Expand the number of charter schools, create a stronger alternative teacher certification program, link student performance data to individual teachers and systematize reform procedures for failing schools.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of federal money, which often bureaucratizes the schools and advances a questionable agenda. But such concerns are typically overlooked by the governor and many in the Legislature, who desperately seek a school spending fix. In this case, the proposed reforms show promise.

Consider charter schools. A growing body of evidence indicates that charter schools improve student achievement, and a recent study demonstrates that New York City charter schools have closed achievement gaps at an unprecedented rate.

But charter school expansion in Michigan is effectively blocked by a legislative cap on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by state universities, which approve most of the charter schools in Michigan. School employee unions traditionally have fought raising this cap, arguing that there is insufficient evidence that charter schools improve student improvement.

As for alternative teacher certification, Michigan law theoretically permits it. But every teacher is still forced to obtain a degree specifically in education — no other specialty will do.

This approach discourages many talented individuals from becoming teachers. Yet research shows teacher quality is key to student performance, and Race to the Top's multiple certification routes would permit accomplished professionals to enter teaching without needing to obtain a new degree.

Michigan's student performance measurements, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and the Michigan Merit Examination are reported school by school. But the results are not linked to teachers to allow teachers' successes to be more easily analyzed. Of course, such an analysis is complex — many factors go into student achievement — but the analysis is prohibitively difficult if the raw data is hard to obtain, a point that Race to the Top recognizes.

As for the fourth reform, the Legislature is advancing bills to more aggressively reconstitute perennially failing schools. The bill most likely to pass, however, would make it harder to privatize noninstructional services, robbing districts of a major cost-saving tool.

So why hasn't Michigan adopted these reforms, especially when the state could land an extra $600 million for schools?

The school employee unions view them as threats. They fear more charter schools because the schools are not typically unionized, and reconstituted schools may follow their example. Tracking individual teachers' progress could lead to performance pay and threaten the union's rigid compensation system.

Yet such concerns are primarily about union power, not better educational outcomes for kids.

If the governor and Legislature refuse to consider constructive change, taxpayers should reject any proposed tax hikes. There's no reason to feed more money into a system that refuses the most moderate reforms.

#####

Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.)