Governor Gretchen Whitmer will deliver her first State of the State address on Tuesday. It’s a moment for her to highlight ongoing accomplishments in Michigan, and to lay out her formal legislative agenda.
Whitmer campaigned on a promise to stop raids on the K-12 School Aid Fund. Now, educators are watching to see if the governor will deliver.
When Amazon announced in late 2017 that it would open a second national headquarters, more than 200 cities in North America threw in their bids. Among that initial list were Detroit and Grand Rapids. By the following January, Amazon narrowed its search to 20.
But neither of Michigan’s two largest cities made the cut.
Gretchen Whitmer, who had just announced her candidacy for governor, knew the reason why.
“They cited a concern about talent,” Whitmer says. “We used to have the finest education system in the world and now we're in the bottom 10 in our country. We're failing generations of kids from cradle to career.”
Whitmer says closing the skills gap must be a priority in Michigan, and that it has to start with its youngest learners.
“The plan that I’ve put on the table starts with universal early childhood education and extends through making sure that you can get an affordable four year degree or a debt free two year degree or a path into the skilled trades,” she says.
Now, Governor Whitmer must sell her vision for education to lawmakers if she is to turn her promise into policy. And that raises the perennial question of government:
How will we pay for it?
More Income, Less Investment
Financially, Michigan households have rebounded well in the decade since the Great Recession. But experts say the public schools those families send their kids to have not.
“The economy is fine,” says Dr. David Arsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “The problem is our willingness to devote the income that we have to public services at a rate that we did just a decade ago.”
In a recent national study, Arsen found the state’s annual growth in school funding has ranked dead last since 1995. He says there’s been a “profound failure” in Michigan to adjust revenues to the cost of meeting rising student outcome standards.
“There has been a 60 percent decline in per pupil funding for at risk kids,” Arsen notes. “The state provides no state aid for school facilities and that guarantees huge inequalities in opportunities for students and burdens for taxpayers. In short, Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap and we've been kidding ourselves to think that we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”
The result, he says, is a state that since 2002 has witnessed the nation’s lowest growth in math and reading proficiency.
Today, with a new administration at the helm, funding reform advocates hope a study published a year ago will pick up a new head of steam.
An Outline For Reform
In January 2018, a group of business leaders and educators called the School Finance Research Collaborative calculated the average cost to educate one Michigan student came to $9,590.
But director Wanda Cook-Robinson says that’s only the baseline. The Oakland Schools superintendent cites other factors that play into the cost of giving each student a tailor-made education.
“You have special education students that are mildly impaired, there is a percentage more you should receive for each one of those students,” Cook-Robinson explains. “If you have English language learners, there are three levels and each of those three levels has a percentage associated with it that you would get in addition to the $9,590.”
Don't Cross The Streams
Increasing per pupil spending is only part of the puzzle. For years, Michigan has shifted money from the School Aid Fund to universities and community colleges. Currently, that diversion totals about $908 million.
Governor Whitmer has pledged to patch that leak and keep the $14 billion K-12 budget intact. But in order for her to separate those two funding streams, the governor will need help from State Representative Aaron Miller (R-59), who chairs the House Subcommittee on School Aid.
“It's relatively impossible to get them both out and still pay for them at a level she would probably want to,” says Miller. “So, I’m very interested in seeing how she's going to do it. Obviously she needs her legislative partners for any kind of tax increase, and I think that's off the table in general. So what's going to happen? We don't know. I look forward to working with them 100 percent when that budget recommendation comes out.”
Miller won’t have long to wait. After the State of the State address, Governor Whitmer is expected to send her spending wish list to the legislature sometime in early March.