School Money Primer Stands the Test of Time

Still referenced 10 years later

Check out the Mackinac Center's primer online at

In 2007, the Mackinac Center released its book on school finance in Michigan. Titled “A Michigan School Money Primer,” it’s used today as a basic guide for people interested in how schools are funded. 

At the time of its release, the book traced $19 billion in federal, state, local and intermediate school district revenues — $12,000 per student — from the methods used to raise the money to the mechanics of spending it. Where does the money come from and when? How is it appropriated and distributed? How is the money spent by school districts? The book asks these broad questions and then answers them in detail.

The book is one of a kind. When it was published, no other primer had such detail, and it came with no specific policy recommendations. The Mackinac Center published it to be used solely as a guide for district officials and school board members, not as a platform for recommending a particular policy change. At 195 pages and with 600 reference footnotes and endnotes, it continues to be one of the largest, most comprehensive works we’ve ever produced. Moreover, the study emphasized the use of primary sources to a greater degree than perhaps any other study did to that date.

By primary sources, we mean that most assertions made in the primer can be traced back to the laws that mandates the funding formula, as well as other official documents. We did not rely on the interpretations of others. While that latter point is a hallmark of Mackinac Center scholarship today, it is perhaps no better illustrated than in this book. When we discuss millages for public recreational facilities, for example, it is only after reading and understanding the 1917 law that makes them possible. 

The primary author of this book, Ryan Olson, is a classically trained scholar with a doctorate in classical studies and literature from Oxford University. At the time, he was director of education policy with the Mackinac Center; today, he directs the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Co-author Michael LaFaive was and remains director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative for the Mackinac Center, where he continues to write on state budget topics.

The book was well-received. It drew praise from members of the press who write on school finance as well as school board members. Professors at Michigan colleges used it in their graduate-level classes. Olson spoke about the book at Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University and the Michigan Negotiators Association. 

The Mackinac Center’s current director of education policy, Ben DeGrow, still uses the book despite its age and dated figures. “Understanding the inner workings and idiosyncrasies of Michigan’s school finance system — like that of almost any other state — poses a daunting challenge,” he said. 

“It may take prolonged and careful study,” DeGrow continued. “Being able to explain the funding puzzle in comprehensive fashion for legislators, superintendents and education reporters alike represents a remarkable feat. While policymaking never stands still, and certain details have changed, the primer largely has stood the test of time. The bright yellow copy is never far away from my desk, ready when I need to reference insights on anything from local taxing authority to state reimbursement formulas.”

Though it is 10 years old, “A Michigan School Money Primer” is arguably one of the Center’s masterpieces of research and writing. There was nothing like its deep and broad presentation on the school finance beforehand and we have yet to see its equal.