By Stephanie Hernandez McGavin
The Meridian Times
In the barrage of budget proposals, school funding bills and teacher retirement benefit reforms, Michigan residents help explain the current state of Michigan education.
The Proposed Budget
Although Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a $75 per pupil increase in his budget, Okemos Public Schools director of finance Robert Clark said the fixed cost of foundation allowances does not account for natural cost increases in schools.
The foundation allowance, which combines local and state funds and allocates a perpupil amount to each school district, is $8,099 per student in Okemos schools.
Clark said that if the enrollment in Okemos schools did not continue to increase, as it currently is, the schools could not remain “above water.”
Clark said that dependance on foundation allowances leads to the inability to offset natural increasing costs like inflation, insurance premiums and contractual teacher pay increases.
The Okemos school district was already facing budget cuts that forced it to freeze teachers’ salaries and pensions, search for less experienced—and cheaper—teachers and reduce health care quality and coverage.
Snyder also proposed the decrease of performance-based funding, a categorical allowance.
Categorical allowances are based on varying factors. Examples of categorical allowances include performance-based funding, which rewards successful schools, and at-risk funding, which aids schools with high at-risk student populations.
Performance funding for each district can be $100 per student in additional funding. Districts receive $40 for tested success in all high school subjects, $30 for elementary and middle schools’ tested success in reading and $30 for their success in math.
Clark said the elimination of this additional allowance will hurt schools that depended on the funds to help offset natural cost increases.
“Because of the increase expenditures we face without doing anything, all we do is continue along with our business, and certain things increase,” said Clark. “It doesn’t necessarily always get counted in the foundation allowance to totally catch up to these cost increases.”
Teacher health care reforms
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Snyder’s 2012 retiree benefits reform law constitutional on April 8. The law gave current school employees the option to put 3 percent of their salary toward funding health benefits for current and future retirees.
The Court of Appeals ruled the original 2010 law unconstitutional, because it required teachers to give their own earnings, or property, to others.
The Supreme Court said that if the teachers did not contribute, their future pension benefits would be lowered. But the law did not affect previously collected benefits.
Anne Schieber, senior investigative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said teachers say that they give up a higher multiplier to receive health care.
The multiplier refers to a cycle of economic stimulation. Increased investment in teachers would lead to an increase in teachers’ economic output that stimulates the economy and benefits others. Schieber said it would not be fiscally responsible to promote the health care benefits, because it is such a wild card.
While health care can be reformed, because it is not protected under the Constitution, pensions are protected. But Schieber said teacher pensions need to be reformed, because they contribute to a large part of the state and school deficits.
Schieber said, “We have a pension for teachers that’s underfunded by about $26 billion, so the state has to pay that all. It’s sort of like having a mortgage and you haven’t paid it back for years on end.”
Schieber said, despite sufficient funding, schools are still failing because most funding that goes toward these benefits is protected by unions. Teacher unions, Schieber said, also protect underperforming teachers, which leads to unsuccessful students.
Schieber said, “It’s going to the wrong thing. You have very powerful unions that want security without accountability. You have a system that protects mediocrity.”
Cooper Franks, a recent Michigan State graduate who will be entering the education field as a student teacher in the fall, said he is not sure he wants to enter the public schools system because of these negative views of unionized public school teachers.
“You don’t have a lot of autonomy as a teacher in the public school system,” said Franks. “A doctor doesn’t have to fill out paperwork and justify why you are given medicine.”
Franks said unions cannot be blamed for protecting teachers that are underpaid and disrespected. Instead, Franks said the U.S. needs to change the way it views teachers and the education system.
While he does agree that there are some cases in which teachers are at fault for unsuccessful students, Franks said the U.S. should start trusting teachers and stop restricting them with Common Core Standards that were not created by educators and blaming unions for protecting teachers’ rights.
Instead, Franks said the U.S. needs to establish requirements for teachers similar to those of medical doctors. Teachers would attend more school, be evaluated based on their students’ success, have more autonomy in how they educate students and be held in high regard alongside professionals like doctors.
The funding debate continues as educators, politicians and residents advocate for, what they believe is, the best way to aid the students of Michigan’s public schools.