The Michigan Education Association and other interest groups
are attempting to mandate funding and spending increases in the state education
budget. Most of the rhetoric from both proponents and detractors has focused on
mandatory funding increases set at the rate of inflation, but the proposal
includes other ominous policies that would water down incentives and further
damage educational quality.
One such policy is averaging enrollment numbers over three
years, a Trojan horse that would substantially and negatively alter incentives
for districts to offer quality instruction and practice careful administration
and fiscal management. Under current state law, a majority of Michigan’s K-12
education money is provided by the state to local districts through a foundation
allowance for each student. The total amount a district receives through
foundation allowances is based on its pupil count.
Generally, the foundation allowance follows the student. For
example, if the parent of a student at Bunker Middle School in the Muskegon city
district wants her child to fill a seat made available by the neighboring Mona
Shores district, most of the foundation grant from the Muskegon district would
be paid to Mona Shores instead of Muskegon.
The petition circulated by the MEA and currently being
considered by the state Legislature would require the state to distribute funds
based on the larger of two figures: the current year’s enrollment, or the
average of the current year’s enrollment and the enrollments in the previous two
years. The three-year calculation method is currently used only for districts
meeting very specific size criteria.
If the proposal had been in effect last year, the Muskegon
district would have received funding from the state for about 6,100 students,
even though the district’s enrollment for funding purposes was about 5,880 that
year. Tellingly, the difference between Muskegon’s actual and averaged
enrollments is about the same as the number of Muskegon students who transferred
to the Mona Shores district last spring, according to data from the state
government’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Set aside the fact that the proposal’s enrollment calculation
would put financial strain on the School Aid Fund by inflating the total number
of students actually attending Michigan schools.
The more insidious effect of the proposed mandate would be to
weaken incentives created by competition. What strong incentive would the
Muskegon district have to improve educational quality enough to encourage
students not to transfer to another district or to a nearby charter school? What
compelling motive would the Muskegon school board have to be a good steward of
taxpayer dollars if the board knew that losing kids to another district would
have only a diminished effect on the district’s revenue?
In fact, the mandate would substantially weaken the limited
influence parents have in the current system. Under limited public school choice
laws, including charter schools and inter- and intra-district choice, some
parents can participate in their child’s education in the most fundamental way,
by choosing the school that best suits their child’s unique needs.
Every time parents choose a public but nondistrict school for
their children, the assigned district loses the state funds it would have
received had the parents chosen to keep their kids in the assigned school. When
enough parents "vote with their feet," a school district begins to feel the
pinch. School board members, administrators and teachers begin looking for ways
to cut costs and improve schools. If a district can reverse a downward trend and
convince parents it’s successful, enrollment numbers and revenues will increase.
Public school choice options constitute a severely restricted
market, but they are creating market-like effects around the state. Parents are
able – albeit in a limited way – to influence educational quality by making
choices that affect school funding.
Further divorcing district income from actual enrollment
figures would tell parents as educational consumers that their choices do not
matter much. It would tell teachers and administrators that letting educational
quality slip would not make much difference. It would tell school boards in
districts with dwindling numbers that they don’t need to keep as close a watch
on taxpayer dollars. It would tell kids that they just don’t matter enough to
have everyone count.
And it would tell other states and countries that we’re not
interested in being competitive. Instead, we’d rather average our way to
Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.