school finance

Will the new Michigan education funding study have a political path toward implementation or take a cruise to nowhere?

Students learning alphabet with digital tablets (Ariel Skelley | Getty Images)

Three weeks after a new study recommended sweeping changes to Michigan’s school funding system, the question remains: Could it have an impact, or will it join previous funding studies on the shelf?

Advocates who hoped that Gov. Rick Snyder would take up the cause in his last year in office now assume little will happen immediately. That’s because Snyder did not signal any interest in his State of the State and budget address in overhauling the way the state allocates funds to schools, even as he indicated he would support increasing per-pupil funding.

“We listened with great interest in the State of the State address hoping the governor would bring that problem forth to make it a legacy in his last year to increasing and properly funding education in the state, said David Crim, a spokesperson for the state teachers union. “One would think this would be one of his priorities, but we were very disappointed it wasn’t mentioned.”

But they say they are hopeful the study can gain momentum next year, when Snyder’s successor takes office and Republican lawmakers might be less focused on appealing to voters by cutting taxes.

“The governor is in his last year, and in his last State of the State address says we need to significantly and for the first time increase investment in K-12, which is good — but the problem is the governor is out of gas,” said John Austin, immediate past president of the State School Board and director of the Michigan Economic Center.

While the School Finance Research Collaborative study released Jan. 17 found Michigan schools cannot compete nationally or adequately serve children’s needs without additional funding and resources, so did the March 2017 21st Century Education Commission report, commissioned by the governor, and the June 2016 Michigan Education Finance Study and nothing happened with them. That’s why some leaders believe the study will be shelved like others before it — unless something drastically different happens.

That includes pressing political candidates to support the report’s recommendations — and holding them to it once they take office, according to Austin.

“Anybody running for governor… should, in my view, run with the study as part of their platform and say if elected, ‘I’m going to implement proper support for great public education for every kid in Michigan,’” Austin said. “And if a governor is elected on that platform and if the legislature changes, that’s when we’ll see some action.”

The collaborative — a 22-member team assisted by 300 educators and others from around the state — spent 18 months and nearly $900,000 to reach its findings. So it makes sense that getting the findings adopted might take time, according to Robert Moore, project director for the School Finance Research Collaborative study and the deputy superintendent of finance and operations for Oakland Schools.

“This is a journey, not an event,” Moore said. “We’ve got to get started because we’re slipping nationally and we’re doing terribly. We know what our game plan is because we are not going to be in the advocacy business. We are going to be in the ‘Here’s what the report says, here’s what it means, here’s how it works, what are your questions?’ business. We will let other people take up the mantle and try to advocate for action.”

Moore said he believes the first step, the process of sharing study findings, will take several weeks alone.

“We have this complex monster of school finance and we have these recommendations on how to build a formula to meet the needs of every student in the funding formula,” he said. “That is what we asked the researchers to do: Tell us the cost to get every student to the state standard no matter where they live and no matter what their needs are.”

Next, the collaborative must determine how to build a formula, Moore said, apply it to district and school demographics and characteristics, and decide how much additional funding needs to be distributed to every district and charter school in the state. That work is just getting underway.

For that reason, the study is not ready for a political path to implementation, said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“Right now, we’ve just received this study and we’re going through it deeply to determine exactly what it says, and we need everyone to learn more about the report,” Wigent said. “We not at the point where we have any kind of solid legislative recommendations, but that should take months rather than years.”

After the next round of elections, the report’s backers hope, Republican lawmakers who are currently vying to convince voters that they won’t raise taxes might be more inclined to consider costly changes to the funding system. But Austin said he isn’t optimistic.

“These legislators are talking about tax cuts versus actually doing what every study has said: We need to invest more,” said Austin. “Their philosophy is totally antithetical to what we actually need to do.”

What’s clear, according to Crim, is that politics need to be pushed aside for the state’s education funding system reform to move forward.

“If we just looked at doing what’s right and looking at these three studies — that have been produced all within the span of the last year or so — time after time showing we need to fund public schools,” he said. “Unless something changes drastically, my fear is this new study will go the way of the previous studies and won’t affect policy.”

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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