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Paying for Michigan Schools: Masking problems because of school of choice

Lester Graham


Michigan legislators hear from educators all the time about money for schools. But legislators, for the most part, are not hearing from parents and other taxpayers.

Tom White is with the SOS (Save Our Students Schools and State), a coaltion of education managers, the P-T-A and others. He says until the public really pressures lawmakers with protests, phone calls and petitions (what the legislators refer to as blood in the streets'), not much is going to be done about more money for schools.

"They know there's a problem, but they just can't get it together to do it. And the notion that we can't deal forward with a public policy issue of such importance and that we have to wait for blood on the streets offends me. And I think we need to say it should be their blood and not the blood of the school children in the state of Michigan that's in the streets," White said.

But it doesn't pay for schools to make a big fuss to parents about their school district being in financial trouble. That's because of Schools of Choice. With that progam, parents living in one school district can send their kid to a school in a different district and state money follows the kid. So, every district is competing for students.

Brad Biladeau is with the Michigan Association of School Administrators. He says it puts school officials in a tough spot.

"On one hand, you've got administrators that want to show a fair reflection of the budget crisis that we're in across the state. However, the minute they do that and their neighboring district doesn't, because of Schools of Choice, their neighboring district will then take that student and conversely take that per-pupil allotment as well," Biladeau said.

A TV ad from Clinton Elementary school provides an example of the advertising schools do to attract out of district students. It says, "Be a part of a small town school with small town values and endless possibilities. Make Clinton Elementary School your School of Choice."

David Pray is the Superintendent of Clinton schools in Lenawee County. He says you have to put the best face on things to attract students. He says until a district is in dire straits, it's not likely parents are going to be contacting their legislators about more money for schools.

"Unless you start cutting programs and it's hurting parents, many parents, for example if you were to cut, God forbid, athletics, then you would have an uproar. The problem with that is if you get yourself in the position where you have to do that, you're going to have some serious problems because of School of Choice. You cut athletics, you're going to lose many, many more students and you're going to find yourself into further financial difficulties," Pray said.

So far, most schools have been making less high-profile cuts. But more and more districts are facing deficits and the cuts are likely to be a lot more significant and a lot more noticeable such as band, arts or shop. But some districts are already in trouble. And Tom White with the coalition group SOS says more districts are on the edge.

It's already a crisis in about 30 districts that are in deficit right now. Well, we could have another 50 districts in deficit," White said.

And White says a term-limited legislature is not looking far enough into the future. It doesn't see that the long-term problems cannot be fixed with short-term patches.

"But, Lansing doesn't have the political will or the political acumen to do it. They're not able to tackle the difficult issues."

Legislators say schools have been protected from some of the severe cuts other state services have seen. They have bigger problems, such as working on an economic recovery for Michigan. And until they hear taxpayers and parents screaming for better funding for schools, that blood in the streets', most observers say the lawmakers in Lansing are not going to make major changes.

Michigan Department of Education: Schools of Choice

Michigan Association of School Boards
Clinton Elementary School video

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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