Free Press: School Funding Up Under Gov. Snyder

Paper substantiates what Michigan Capitol Confidential first reported

Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press had a good story Sunday covering the argument about education funding in Michigan.

The story is worth reading in its entirety, but some parts in particular stick out and reiterate work done by Michigan Capitol Confidential and deserve to be reposted with comment.

Right off the bat Egan takes on the main piece of misinformation that Democrats and some supporters of the status quo in education have been touting:

Did Snyder cut $1 billion from K-12 education, as many critics claim?

The answer is no, state records show.

State funding for K-12 schools has increased by $723 million under Snyder, from $10.7 billion in fiscal year 2011 — the last budget of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm — to $11.4 billion in fiscal year 2014

Michigan Capitol Confidential has reported this earlier, explaining in detail why that alleged cut is way too steep. Despite claims by some Democrat politicians, unions and some superintendents, Michigan never saw a $1 billion cut in education funding.

So what happened with K-12 spending? While federal stimulus money dried up, state spending increased for the past few years, leading to more money per pupil today than when Gov. Snyder took office.

Regarding the funding for 2010-11, Egan noted that it was never correct to say that Gov. Snyder cut education funding by $1 billion.

The governor originally proposed decreasing state funding about $440 million, which many add to the decrease of $520 million in stimulus money. But that proposal did not happen.

By the time the budget was finalized, the cut was reduced to closer to $500 million, with nearly all of that related to lost federal funding.

Then it turned out the 2011 estimates were wrong and the state ended up spending $180 million less than expected on school aid during Granholm’s last year. That meant it was suddenly easier for Snyder to match 2011 school spending in 2012 than it appeared it would be when he presented his budget. Those revised numbers reduced the cut to about $393 million, an amount that could be blamed entirely on the feds.

In fact, Snyder’s first budget ultimately increased the state share of education funding by about $134 million, from $10.7 billion in 2011 to $10.8 billion in 2012.

That being the case, how are some critics able to claim the Legislature cut such a large amount of money? By ignoring the numbers they don’t like and fudging the ones they do.

Zack Pohl, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, said Schauer maintains that Snyder cut more than $1 billion from education in his 2011-12 budget, including $931 million from K-12 education.

'It’s preposterous ... to claim it's 'unfair' to criticize Snyder for not having control over elapsing (federal) funding,' Pohl was quoted as saying. 'He's the governor, and it was his budget he signed into law. Snyder chose not to find new revenue for education because he used that money to pay for his huge $1.8-billion corporate tax break.'

To support his claim that the K-12 cut for 2011-12 totaled $931 million, Pohl points to a Senate Fiscal Agency report from June 2011 which did not include supplemental appropriations, which changed the numbers significantly.

So, despite the actual numbers being laid out, Pohl stuck with the false number based on a proposal that never happened. This is justified by then claiming a state governor should have held more sway over the federal budget, apparently arguing that the stimulus should have been continued forevermore. Then, a larger "cut" can be claimed by only counting some funding and ignoring other spending as they see fit.

But if this is true, why does it feel to teachers and administrators like K-12 funding is so tight when the reality is that it is essentially at an, inflation-adjusted, all-time high? Egan quoted several superintendents who, while happy the Legislature is shoring up the system, are upset because this is not money that comes right to them to spend as they wish.

[Retirement] costs were forecast to jump from 25% of payroll to 35% of payroll statewide. The state moved to cap those costs at 26% of payroll and pledged to cover increases beyond that, which won’t level off until 2017. The budget that Snyder presents Wednesday will include $270 million just to cover those increased MPSERS costs above the cap, Nixon said.

That 'extra' money doesn’t get to the classroom because it's 'matched by a bill from the Office of Retirement Services,' said Marcia Wilkinson, director of community relations at Birmingham Public Schools.

The bottom line, said Ron Stoneman, superintendent for the Redford Union School District, is less money is getting into the classroom. That means class sizes are surging, programs are being scaled back and teachers took an 11.5% pay cut, he said. The district is one of about 50 in the state operating with a deficit. Stoneman said the retirement aid has helped.

'But we are floundering with getting money to the classroom,' he said

This also was covered previously by Michigan Capitol Confidential in the story, "Pension Costs Mean Tighter Budgets For Classrooms, Taxpayers." The underfunded teacher pension system, $23 billion and counting, is sucking up a lot of education spending.

How school administrators, some Democrats and union officials view school funding is important because it shows the mindset of some who only want to count some of the money they receive as state spending. It is a bit strange that the superintendents quoted don't believe this money is "getting to the classroom." This is the retirement money for teachers. Does teacher compensation not now count as classroom spending? As a colleague asked me, "If teachers aren't 'in the classroom,' who is?"

In sum, there was never a $1 billion cut in K-12 funding in Michigan (or $2 billion, as some have claimed). Education spending per pupil is just about at an all-time high.

But classrooms are being squeezed by other factors, namely mismanagement. At the local level, administrators are not anticipating student population loss or dealing with health care costs, and at the state level mismanagement is occurring by not properly funding the pension system or getting the government out of a defined benefit system.

The way the state dishes out its K-12 funding is complicated. That's why it is important to have a news source like Michigan Capitol Confidential that dives into the details, correcting popular misconceptions and fact checking those in charge when they are incorrect.