Flint, DPS, and the State of Schools in Michigan

Recent revelations about the Flint water crisis and conditions in Detroit Public School buildings are emblematic of the poor leadership of Governor Snyder and Senate and State Representatives in Lansing. Citizens throughout our state should take notice and offense at the terrible harm to our state’s reputation on the national and international stage. The Flint and Detroit tragedies will not be the end of poor outcomes if Michiganders do not demand more realistic and responsible governance from Lansing.

School districts across our state are having to make decisions about course offerings, class sizes, and facility upkeep and maintenance due to the chronic underfunding of schools in Michigan. The state controls per pupil funding for districts in Michigan. Local voters lost the ability to enhance funds for their schools as of 1994 with the passage of Proposal A. For years now the per pupil amount schools receive from Lansing have not kept up with inflation. Additionally, Lansing has passed along increasing expenses that further erode what remains for districts to work with.

When asked about school funding, politicians in Lansing will frequently say that schools have to cut waste or that we have to do more with less. This may be an acceptable short term answer in times of crisis; however, it is not a plan for long term success. If I continually give you less food to eat and tell you just to do more with less, you will eventually starve to death! This is what is happening in Michigan schools right now.

Poor governance in Lansing is causing a growing teacher shortage (see my August 2015 posting on this topic), and cuts to often beloved programs in such areas as fine arts and tech ed classes as well as to athletic programs.  Districts have little choice but to make these cuts as they struggle to preserve their core curriculum classes (English, math, science, and social studies).

Looking toward the future there is even more serious trouble on the horizon.  In last year’s legislative session politicians finally passed a much needed bill regarding road funding in Michigan.  It is no secret to Michigan residents that our roads have long been in need of improvement and are yet another source of embarrassment caused by irresponsible leadership.  The problem with the bill is that its full impact does not take full effect until 2021 when then future legislatures are supposed to find hundreds of millions of dollars in road funding from existing state budget areas.  In other words, while they passed a roads bill, our current legislators passed on a budgetary time bomb to the not-so-distant future.  That future is, however, after most of the current folks in the statehouse in Lansing will be gone due to term limits!  Nice gift to the future!  That money will have to come from “somewhere.”

“Somewhere” for our folks in Lansing has too often meant the school aid fund (SAF).  In order to fund community colleges and universities, recent legislatures have taken to expanding what had been the fund for K-12 schools to post high school institutions.  This budget year the state also set aside $50 per pupil in Michigan to deal with the financial crisis in Detroit Public Schools (now on its fourth governor appointed superintendent).  Now we have the Flint water crisis that will no doubt be an expensive fix which will be followed by expensive lawsuits.

Michigan residents are not helpless in all this.  We do need to demand better, more realistic, and more responsible leadership from Lansing.  Modern roads, water systems, and schools all come with a price.  Current leaders are leading our state more toward being a third world nation rather than a twenty-first century leader.  If the folks currently making decisions in Lansing refuse to do a better job they must be replaced at the next election opportunity.

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