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Article of Interest - Michigan Schools

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Bridges4Kids LogoState School Chief Offers a Few Common Sense Ideas
Watkins' paper moves education community beyond simply demanding more revenue.
The Detroit News, December 24, 2004
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A call to action by the Michigan Board of Education ought to get some attention in Lansing.

While the board has mostly been in the business of protecting the education status quo, the outline submitted by state Superintendent Tom Watkins contains some well-timed warnings and useful suggestions for restructuring the state's public schools.

Watkins is correct in noting that the current operating system for schools is broken. Michigan spends $12 billion on K-12 education, and still most school districts in the state are in a constant state of financial crisis.

It's significant to note that Watkins is not asking for more money for the schools, at least not at this time.

Instead, he recommends a thorough examination of how the current finances are spent, and how more bang can be achieved for those bucks.

He warns that even a significant increase of $300 per student in the state foundation grant of $7,100 would have little impact on what happens in the classroom, since $250 of that would be eaten up by sharply rising pension and health care costs for school employees.

Since a $300 hike isn't likely, the districts will have to cover those rising costs with additional cost-cutting.

Watkins rightly notes that neither revenue increases nor year-to-year spending cuts are a long-term solution unless they are part of an overall structural change in the way schools operate.

He puts on the table the idea of school district consolidation, so communities like St. Clair, for example, with 8,500 students, aren't served by three different school districts, with three superintendents and other administrative costs in the triplicate.

Another option is to have the state's intermediate school districts assume more of the administrative tasks for the local districts, freeing up more classroom money.

Watkins note correctly that many school districts haven't made the hard decisions to close unneeded school buildings, and very few have had the will to address employee health care and pension costs.

The final answer to Michigan's ailing public schools is probably much more complex than this.

But the paper is a good starting point, and at least gets the education community thinking beyond simply demanding more revenue from taxpayers or a shrinking state treasury, and starting to think about how it can do its business more efficiently.


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