Impact of Michigan’s continuing erosion of public school funding

Updated 3/22/13

This is the time of year when debate heats up over Michigan public school funding.  It’s also the time of year when, more than ever before, local community-based school districts such as Godfrey-Lee are struggling to avoid making more cuts that impact students in the classroom.

Governor Snyder wants you to believe that he is advocating for a 2 percent increase in public school funding but those who are smart enough to see beyond the smoke and mirrors know that this is false. At best, he has recommended the state pick up a $250 per student tab for the increased costs in the retirement system and a misnamed “equity” payment for districts currently receiving less than a $7,000 per-student foundation grant. Neither will help our students at Godfrey-Lee.

The Michigan Teachers Retirement System has been in existence since 1917. Following some problems, a new law replaced it in 1937 and ten years later the current MPSERS (Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System) was established. Until the mid-1990’s, funding of MPSERS was the responsibility of the state along with contributions by individual members. School districts did not pay into the system. That changed under Governor John Engler when costs were shifted from the state to local school districts. At the same time, the number of retired teachers steadily increased while the number of active teachers paying into the system has been declining. We can thank Governor Engler again since his advocacy for charter schools has helped create this situation. The vast majority of charter school teachers do not participate or pay into the state retirement system. One more blunder by Governor Engler occurred when the state stopped pre-funding the retirement health care system in the late 90’s leading to a huge unfunded liability.

Anyway, let’s get back to Governor Snyder’s $250 per pupil to help fund the rising cost of retirement: Michigan created the retirement system, Michigan has failed to adequately fund the retirement system, Michigan has created the conditions for declining numbers of teachers (and districts on their behalf) paying into the retirement system, and this has all combined to create skyrocketing costs for local school districts.

At the same time, Governor Snyder and the Republican-led legislature has reduced funding to public schools ever since taking office in 2008. While Proposal A was intended to close the gap between low-funded and high-funded school districts, it’s difficult to see the value of such an outcome when in fact schools are seeing less dollars per student than they did as far back as 2006. Here’s a chart that illustrates the history of the per-pupil foundation allowance for Godfrey-Lee students since Proposal A took effect:


This chart illustrates the foundation allowance in real dollars (blue bars) for each year since 1995. As you can see, for the most part it rose steadily following the enactment of Proposal A as it was intended to do in order to close the gap with higher funded districts. However, Governor Snyder reduced Godfrey-Lee’s foundation allowance by $470 per pupil for the past two years and is once again requesting it remain at this level for the 2013-14 school year.

The red bars indicate the inflation-adjusted foundation allowance for Godfrey-Lee in 2013 dollars. As you can see, our “best-funded” year was nearly ten years ago (2013) and has been steadily eroding ever since. This by the way has been occurring despite the fact that during this same decade, the state adopted NCLB standards for achievement and rigorous graduation requirements that apply to every public school student regardless of whether that student is being supported equitably with funding and other resources.

Sometimes, we don’t always understand precisely how reductions in funding such as this impact the classroom and our children. Here are some examples using Godfrey-Lee’s current student enrollment of 1,800 pupils:

  • A $1 reduction in the foundation allowance ($1,800) means that four students may not have access to a computer or other similar technology for learning.
  • A $10 cut means that teachers in at least one of our school buildings will have to go without classroom supplies and materials for the year.
  • A $30 reduction in per-pupil state funding could lead to the elimination of the school nurse contracted services, critical to the health of our students.
  • A $100 shortfall in per-pupil funding means cuts in the number of teachers and higher class sizes.
  • A $470 cut in the per-pupil foundation allowance the past two school years equaled a loss in state and local revenue of $846,000 per year or a total of $1,692,000!

As you can see from these examples, dealing the past two years with a $470 per pupil reduction has been very difficult and only through a variety of short-term federal grants have we been able to reduce the severity of cuts impacting students. However, these federal funds are a bandaid and not intended to supplant the responsibility of Michigan to equitably fund public education for all students.

With the continuation of this $470 cut and an additional loss of one-time funds proposed in the House version of the 2013-14 school aid budget, the overall reduction in revenue will climb to $522 per pupil, for a total drop of $939,600! One additional graph will help you visualize the continuing decline in total state funding despite a constitutional responsibility to provide for a public education system:


This chart compares real dollars to inflation-adjusted funding levels in constant 2011 dollars. As you can see once again, total state and local revenue per pupil (the foundation grant plus certain categorical aid) has not kept pace with inflation and if the past two years were included in this chart, you would easily see a steady decline since 2006, with a drop-off since the election of Governor Snyder.

I’m providing you with this information as a prelude to the fact that after five years of steadily eroding state revenues, we can no longer prevent serious cuts in programs and teachers, both of which will likely have negative repercussions for our students. This continuing erosion in per-pupil state aid since 2005-06 has led us to the following situation:

  • The district’s fund balance has declined from 23% to 8% by the end of the current school year forcing us to now seek costly cash-flow loans.
  • Class sizes in our impoverished, high-needs district continue to increase even with the implementation of a number of cost-savings measures such as large-group co-taught and blended learning classes. The Board of Education will be considering a 10% reduction in our teaching staff for the coming school year.
  • Funding for most non-personnel areas has been slashed by more than 50% over the past four years leaving little operational, material, textbook and equipment support in one of the oldest school districts around.
  • Administrative costs have been reduced dramatically with most administrative staff now wearing multiple hats, working longer hours with no additional compensation, continuing a four-year trend of salary freezes despite being some of the lowest paid in the county, paying considerably more for benefits, and burning out at a fast pace.
  • Teachers and support staff have not had a measurable salary increase, including steps, in two years and are paying considerably more for their benefits, despite the average salary being the lowest in the county.
  • Our elementary and middle schools continue to struggle to raise student achievement, particularly in math and science, with diminishing resources, larger class sizes, and lack of financial support for sorely-needed longer school days and school years, along with extensive teacher training, to overcome the effects of poverty, limited English proficiency, and transiency.
  • We are struggling with the transition to the Common Core State Standards and preparation for the Smarter Balance Assessment due to declining resources for teacher training, collaboration, curriculum materials, etc.

We will need the support of our parents, community and staff in sending a message to Governor Snyder and Lansing that this has got to end – here, now. The state has a moral and constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and equitable public education for all students, but it hasn’t been living up to that obligation. This has to change. The future of Michigan and our students depends on it.


About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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3 Responses to Impact of Michigan’s continuing erosion of public school funding

  1. AskteacherZ says:

    Wonderful Post: this information is often misunderstood. You’ve provided tremendous clarity to a very cloudy topic. Thanks.

  2. Jennifer Kangas says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am not in your district but have forwarded this on as something we should prepare and it would be helpful if all districts could prepare. We’re all facing drastic changes to our schools. We must speak up NOW!

  3. Pingback: One More Time on Equity in School Funding | Superintendent's Notes

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