On Tuesday, I enjoyed a front-row spot among 11,000 people
state Capitol rally sponsored by the
K‑16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future. I saw and heard many people who were
quite passionate about children and Michigan’s future.
But for all the energy at the gathering, no one produced an
argument that made a connection between the crowd and speakers’ goal — better
education for students — and the stated purpose of the rally, which was to
Senate Bill 246 and state
House Bill 4582. These two bills would mandate minimum annual state
funding increases for primary, secondary and higher
The participants included students, educators,
administrators, school board members, parents and policy-makers. All were
visibly committed to the education of Michigan’s K‑12 and college students. They
carried placards urging support for the two legislative bills, announcing the
districts they represented or questioning whether students were worth "only
$6,700" (the current minimum state per-pupil grant). One sign pleaded to the
governor, "Help us, Jen!"
The speakers were equally earnest about students’
education. Tom White, executive director of Michigan School Business Officials
and chair of the K-16 Coalition, insisted that supporters were not "tying
legislators’ hands," but were interested only in providing a "world-class
education." Another speaker stressed the fact that policy-makers’ abstract
education figures in fact represent real students. She exhorted participants to
exercise their "democratic right" by making legislators "work for" them, and
trumpeted the importance of good public education in attracting businesses to
the state. A bright student from Northern Michigan University who had graduated
from a public school in Detroit asked legislators to help secure Michigan’s
future by "fully funding" education.
Neither she nor any other speaker argued in any significant
way that there is a connection between increased funding for education and
improving the quality of education (typically measured by student performance).
She, like most of the speakers, seemed to assume that quality education would
follow if only legislators would provide "full
funding" for it.
While this assertion may have seemed intuitive to
participants, research does not support it. The Hoover Institution at Stanford
University recently published a review of education research entitled "School
Figures: The Data behind the Debate." In the
fourth chapter, the book’s authors, Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa, note
the following: "There is a common perception that the way to improve our failing
public schools is simply to spend more money on them. According to many public
school administrators, the amount we spend per pupil is an excellent way to
predict student performance, yet a review of the data for the last 80 years
shows clearly that there is not a strong correlation between increased spending
and improvements in student performance. In fact, increases in per-pupil
expenditures in the past have often not been matched by better student
performance. In short, the evidence suggests that we cannot simply buy better
Gov. Jennifer Granholm has broached this issue with K-16
Coalition leaders. Although she stayed clear of it at the rally, deftly avoiding
an endorsement of the bills and praising participants for forcing the
Legislature to deal with education, the governor told K‑16 Coalition leaders a
in a news release that "investment (in education) … must go hand-in-hand
with getting the most out of every dollar we spend in education, which means
reducing costs and realizing greater student achievement."
That is precisely the rub: More money doesn’t guarantee
better learning, in part because the money isn’t always spent well.
Despite the governor’s admonition and a body of established
education research, the point of the event seemed to be calling for increased
expenditures ("Support SB 246 and HB 4582!") and expressing a general desire for
better schools ("Improve education now!"). By omitting a discussion of the
connection between the two, the organizers and speakers of the K-16 Coalition
rally did participants a disservice: They neglected a chance to provide
substantive ideas for improving the quality of Michigan public education to an
eager crowd. They therefore missed the opportunity to channel the collective
voice of an impassioned throng toward more effective solutions for Michigan’s
The rally’s attendees can regret that oversight.
Ryan S. Olson 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.