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
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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