The proposed mandate would substantially weaken the limited influence parents have in the current system.
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 average.
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.