Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Infrastructure or Education? The looming battles in Michigan for adequate and equitable funding

In response to crumbling roads and the Flint water crisis, Governor Rick Snyder created the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to conduct an inventory of needs and project future costs. The commission delivered its report on November 30 and the governor released it to the public yesterday. You can read the Executive Summary for yourself as well as the full report, if so inclined. Most of us have simply skipped to the part where they estimate what it will cost the taxpayers over the next 30 to 50 years.

The report concluded that $59 billion over the next twenty-years was needed and should be seen as an "investment:"
Investing in our infrastructure—our roads and bridges; water, sewer, and storm water systems; and energy and communications networks—is essential for ensuring 1) public health and safety, 2) quality of life, and 3) sustainable economic growth for all Michigan residents.  (p. 117)
Of course inflation and additional deterioration of our infrastructure is likely to send that cost even higher.

What's interesting is that the same "investment" rationale is easily applied to the need for better public education in Michigan. And it just so happens, the legislature released a report this past June (three months late) titled Michigan Education Finance Study (June 2016), to determine if schools are funded at a level of EQUITY that ensures each and every student has a chance to be successful when measured by state-imposed standards and tests.

In short, the study concluded a resounding NO and recommended the following:

  1. An increase in the minimum foundation allowance (the per-pupil funding provided to most school districts) of approximately $1,100 per student to meet adequacy standards.
  2. An additional 30% increase in funding for each at-risk student.
  3. An additional 40% increase in funding for English language learner (ELL) students.
  4. A method of better tracking of special education expenditures from all sources to determine equity costs for this category.
To estimate the investment necessary to provide at least an equitable education system that can better meet the 21st century needs of our students (and our state), consider the following student counts for last school year:

Total number of enrolled K-12 students = 1,540,005
Approximate increase of $1,100 per student = $1.4 billion

Total number of at-risk K-12 students = 713,295
Approximate increase of 30% (after the additional $1,100) = $1.8 billion

Total number of ELL K-12 students = 90,121
Approximate increase of 40% (after the additional $1,100) = $306 million

Please note that these are simply low-end estimations only. However, it's plain to see that Michigan should be investing in public education at a much higher level than it does now. Approximately $3.5 billion more per year in fact! Ironically, that is nearly the same as the recommendation by the infrastructure commission.

Combined, this investment shortfall is roughly $7 billion per year. Sounds incredible and perhaps impossible but according to state agencies that deal in these kind of numbers, Michigan is currently undertaxed to the tune of $10 billion according to the Section 26 state revenue limits.

My fear, however, is the rush to improve infrastructure while continuing to ignore the educational needs of our children.