Monday, May 22, 2006

Make Michigan School Funding More Equal

Here is a guest columnist piece from yesterday's Detroit Free Press. Thank goodness inequity in school funding is finally getting some publicity.

Make district funding more equal
May 22, 2006

Equal education for all children is one of America's defining principles. But that equality does not exist in Michigan's public schools. We need to make things right.

Consider that this year the state will pay my school district in northern Michigan about $7,000 to educate my daughter, while at the same time, Birmingham's school district, between state and local taxes, will have about $12,000 to educate a girl there. Multiplied from kindergarten through 12th grade, that difference would mean the girl in Birmingham receives a $156,000 education while my daughter receives a $91,000 education -- a $65,000 gap.

I can hardly imagine it -- $5,000 extra for every child in the school each year. My school could send every student to Europe for a month to study foreign languages -- no exaggeration. But of course, what we would do instead is pay down the $700,000 deficit our district faces this year because funding from the state doesn't cover our expenses.

I am a school board member in the Glen Lake district where my children attend. The northwest Lower Michigan district has 850 K-12 students. I have sat through one meeting after another looking at that $700,000 number in the spreadsheet cell labeled "deficit."

It's difficult to know what to do with a deficit that equals 10% of your entire budget, when we've already cut so much. We have laid off our middle school principal, cut our superintendent to half time and laid off the middle school science teacher and a couple of English teachers. We cut sociology and psychology; advance-placement chemistry will now be taught via Internet. We postponed buying new textbooks yet another year.

As for other districts up here, Kalkaska no longer has buses. Houghton Lake is essentially bankrupt. The superintendent in Suttons Bay collected pop cans to buy anatomy textbooks. The joke going around up here: "What's Birmingham doing, scaling back its polo program?"

I mention Birmingham, but of course there are many other districts that receive far more than we do. Southfield, which has the same number of students as Traverse City, collects $42 million more. Traverse City has a $2-million deficit and is closing schools.

Michigan's school funding is controlled by the Legislature and the Legislature is controlled by population centers. Rural Michigan is always outvoted when it comes to school funding.

And that's why I'm hoping the people of Michigan's wealthier school districts read this. The Legislature says there is no more money for schools. I can accept that; Michigan is in tough economic times. But Michigan will not succeed if a $65,000 disparity exists between one child's education and another's.

Here's the solution: Each year there is nearly $1 billion of what I call inequality dollars -- money spent in districts that exceeds the state's base funding. I'm asking you folks in those districts to tell your legislator that you are OK with giving up a portion of your inequality dollars to help all of Michigan's students receive a good education.

And let me be clear: I'm not asking that your district funding be cut to what we are forced to get by on. Heck no. I'm just asking that you give up enough so the children in my community and rural communities across Michigan can receive a quality core curriculum. For wealthy districts that feel they just can't do with a penny less, I offer my budget-cutting expertise free of charge.

Michigan's future shines brightest when all of its children are well educated. There is no legitimate argument against that. We must unify around the idea of equal education. Please send your legislator an e-mail today saying you support more equitable school funding for all of Michigan's children.

JEFF SMITH of Cedar is a trustee of the Glen Lake
Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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