The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and a host of statewide organizations are opposing a movement that demands annual inflationary increases in the school aid budget.
Groups that support the mandatory increases collected about 300,000 petition signatures and say they want the Legislature to vote to mandate that funding for schools would increase by the rate of inflation each year. If legislators do not act on the demand, and enough signatures are found to be valid, the issue will be on a statewide ballot this November.
Professional groups representing townships, counties, law enforcement, home builders and real estate agents have joined with the state chamber and local chambers of commerce to point out what they see as serious flaws with the proposal.
Even groups that had been thought to be supporters of the plan seem to be backing away from it. The Michigan Association of Community Colleges recently told a House appropriations subcommittee that the group was neutral on the issue, and none of the presidents of Michigan’s 15 public universities have offered support for it.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has adopted a 16-point issue paper titled "Why It’s Wrong for Michigan." Cost is a chief concern for the groups. The non-partisan House Fiscal Agency estimates that mandatory funding increases would cost taxpayers an additional $1.1 billion in the first year alone. That amount would be on top of the more than $12 billion in state taxes already spent on public education. A recent National Education Association survey showed Michigan ranked eighth in the country in education spending, at more than $19 billion including state, federal and local sources.
If that much money were to be culled from other parts of Michigan’s budget, opponents wonder what other public services would be affected. The Chamber points out there may not be enough money to fund critical needs such as police officers, fire fighters, corrections officers and other public safety functions.
A February opinion poll conducted by a Lansing firm found 56 percent of Michigan’s likely voters approve of the funding mandates, but the number drops to just 39 percent support when put in the context that it might require cuts in police and fire protection or tax hikes.
While those who support the mandate often say the state should "fully fund education," the Chamber points out that between 1994 and 2004, spending on public schools increased 43 percent. Enrollment went up just 5 percent during the same time period.
"It’s an incredibly selfish, one-sided proposal," according to Rich Studley of the Chamber.
Backers say it will improve Michigan’s future.
"Providing adequate funding for public schools, community colleges and universities will position Michigan for good paying jobs," Tom White, a spokesman for funding backers, testified before the House Education Committee.
If the funding increase is approved, there would be no requirement that the money be tied to student achievement or educational quality.
There is even disagreement among public school officials that a funding problem exists. Sharron Norman, school improvement director for Lansing Public Schools, told the Lansing State Journal that a 20 percentage point increase in fourth grade MEAP language arts scores over the past three years can be attributed to in-depth teacher training and sufficient funding.
The Chamber also has accused the people claiming an increase is needed of inconsistency. Writing for Michigan Education Report last fall, Chamber President Jim Barrett pointed out that education leaders in 2002 were opposed to earmarking tobacco settlement money and lobbied against Proposal 4, which would have earmarked millions of dollars specifically for health care programs and projects. Barrett wrote that the Michigan Federation of Teachers urged their members to vote no on Proposal 4 because, "it would allow the new legislature no flexibility in dealing with the state’s budgetary crisis and would make it impossible to adjust these priorities in the years ahead based on changing needs or circumstances."
Similarly, the Chamber believes that this year’s funding mandate would undermine legislative oversight and weaken the role of the governor. If passed, the mandate would establish the only portion of state government with a constitutional demand for higher spending every year. Earmarking an ever-increasing amount of money for one part of the state budget would remove those dollars from annual review and control, while at the same time limiting the governor’s constitutional requirement to begin the budget process by submitting proposed expenditures to the Legislature.
The large, mandated increase would reward shrinking districts, rather than encouraging them to be more efficient or to improve educational quality to attract students, while also penalizing growing districts. Money that could be used for districts with growing enrollment will instead go to subsidize smaller schools. Other details of the proposal, such as averaging enrollment figures over three years and shifting responsibility for part of the school employee pension contributions have yet to be fully discussed. A Senate Fiscal Agency report estimates the pension aspect could increase the state’s spending by more than $300 million a year.