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Article of Interest - Michigan

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Bridges4Kids LogoSchools: Watkins or No, Michigan Has Issues With School Funding
Lansing State Journal, January 13, 2005
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If Gov. Jennifer Granholm doesn't like the way state Superintendent Tom Watkins does his job, she should say so - publicly. And she should say why Watkins is not up to the task of being the state's top K-12 policy executive.

But no matter what she thinks about Watkins, Granholm - and legislative leaders - can't quibble with his assessment of Michigan's school funding crisis. "Shooting the messenger" will leave only a dead messenger, and lots of unbalanced school budgets.

The Granholm-Watkins dispute seems to have been months in the making. But Michigan's school funding issues have been years in creation - dating back to the passage of Proposal A.

The landmark school funding and property tax measure approved in 1994 set the stage for what citizens see now: Local school districts, including Lansing, making millions of dollars in budget cuts, while struggling to boost student performance.

Prop A has done three key things to school funding in Michigan:

Tied operational funds to student populations. So, districts with declining or stagnant enrollments have little way to deal with rising costs. That's why you see Lansing trying to push veteran teachers - and their higher costs - out the door.

Barred individual school districts from using local property tax votes to raise money for additional operating expenses. That's why you see long-admired districts such as East Lansing and Okemos cutting programs they don't want to cut.

Created the expectation of ever-rising state aid. That's why Granholm and other lawmakers have diverted money - properly and in tough times - out of the state's general fund to fill "gaps" in the School Aid Fund that's supposed to cover education costs.

Watkins, with at least some cover from the elected state Board of Education that actually hires and fires the superintendent, passionately argues that Michigan can't keep up the charade. In the future he sees, far more districts will look like Detroit's - mired in debt and increasingly unable to help children learn at a 21st-century pace.

That's a chilling prospect, but one with some validation in communities across the state.

Last January, we urged Granholm and legislators to confront these issues and start talking to the public about possible responses. They didn't.

The problems remain - and will - no matter whose name graces the Education Department's stationery.

    

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