Michigan public schools face an unpleasant demographic reality, but may not be
doing enough to prepare for the consequences. The result could be higher local
taxes and too many under-utilized school buildings.
unpleasant reality is this: For at least the next eight years there will be
fewer school-aged children in Michigan. According to projections from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department
of Education, total enrollment in Michigan public elementary and secondary
schools will have dropped from 1,743,000 in 2000 to 1,616,000 in 2012. That is
a decline of 127,000 students, or 7.2 percent.
The figures are broken down by
elementary and secondary grades. For elementary schools, enrollment will fall
from 1,256,000 students in 2000 to 1,147,000 in 2012, a loss of 109,000
students, or 8.6 percent. High schools will see smaller declines, but the
primary school figures also presage declines in secondary school enrollments
Yet, rather than consolidate and
reduce the number of school buildings, schools statewide have been on a building
binge. According to a 2001 study commissioned by the Michigan Chamber
Foundation, "Annual school building debt, and sinking fund millage tax revenue
has grown from $451.9 million in 1994 to almost $1 billion in 2000 — a 117
percent increase." At the end of 2002, school debt qualifying under the state
School Bond Loan Fund totaled $12.2 billion, up $2.4 billion since just 2000, or
a 24 percent increase. Michigan Department of Treasury experts estimate this
represents approximately 80 percent of total school debt.
New construction often is
warranted by local circumstances that buck the overall population trend, and
most school districts are careful to assess future needs. But anecdotal and
some documentary evidence suggest that the trend is continuing. Wherever you
look it appears that school districts are planning to take on new debt for
infrastructure. Detroit is reportedly considering its second $1.5 billion bond
proposal in 10 years. The Lansing School District’s enrollment is already in
decline, but it will borrow more than $30 million to build a new middle school,
at a cost of almost $500,000 per classroom. The Bloomfield Hills school
district is considering $127 million for two new high schools. Rochester
schools want $65 million and Troy schools $100 million for upgrades. In Grand
Rapids, the school district has been slow to sell a number of vacant school
buildings, despite a five-year enrollment decline of 9 percent.
This construction spending becomes
all the more questionable when you consider that every year at least a hundred
million dollars of it is wasted. The reason: The governor and Legislature won’t
get rid of the archaic 1965 Prevailing Wage Act, which mandates inflated
construction costs as a favor to organized labor. Ohio public schools have
saved hundreds of millions of dollars since the Ohio Legislature exempted them
from a similar law in 1997.
The building boom may also have a perverse relationship to Michigan’s limited
inter-district "schools-of-choice" program. School operating expense money is
distributed by the state on the basis of how many pupils a school district
serves. A district with extra capacity can open its doors to students in
adjacent districts. Those adjacent districts must let their children go if
parents so choose, and the state money follows those children to the new
Some school districts may be trying to "protect their turf" with new gold-plated
facilities instead of better academic programs. One school executive told me
there is "…no doubt [that] schools are looking at what attracts parents. A new
school attracts parents."
overall demographic numbers suggest that "reversing student declines" in a given
district may be a sucker’s game, in which schools just pick each other’s pockets
in the same way Michigan communities use tax abatements to compete with each
other for employers. In the schools’ case, the competition may occur through
big debt and millage hikes to build "Taj Mahal" schools that still crank out
mediocre results at best.
bottom line is that the size of the market Michigan schools serve is declining,
and there is nothing they can do about it. School districts tempted to dodge
the demographic bullet with deluxe buildings and beggar-thy-neighbor
policies should think twice. Instead, they should work on what really matters:
making their education programs better.
Jack McHugh is legislative policy analyst for 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 the author and his affiliation are cited.