Jen and the Art of Education

On Tuesday, I enjoyed a front-row spot among 11,000 people at a 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 support state Senate Bill 246 and state House Bill 4582. These two bills would mandate minimum annual state funding increases for primary, secondary and higher education.

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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 schools."

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 day earlier 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 schools.

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.