Distributing Dollars

Study: Billions meant for K-12 education diverted to colleges

What was intended as a one-time budget fix under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm has remained in place for nearly a decade, and has since 2009 diverted $4.5 billion in funding from the state’s K-12 schools to universities and community colleges, according to a report the Michigan League for Public Policy released today.

The study states that Granholm initially used money from the School Aid Fund, meant to fund K-12 education, as a one-time “loan” amid the economic downturn in 2009. Since then, however, Governor Rick Snyder’s administration, with support from the Michigan Legislature, has made a budget strategy of shifting School Aid Fund dollars to pay for tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, the report said.

“Over the past eight years, the exception, unfortunately, became the rule, and using School Aid Fund dollars for higher education went from a last resort to the first order of business,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Throughout the Snyder years, conservatives have argued that more money directed at K-12 education wouldn’t necessarily improve outcomes. They pointed out that while school funding has been going up, the state’s test scores have been going down. But the report suggests that at least part of the increased funding has been siphoned off for colleges and universities.

Some $637 million in funding was diverted from K-12 education during the 2017-2018 school year, and those same schools will lose out on nearly $1 billion during the 2018-2019 school year.

Jacobs said while this tactic may be legal, “it is morally and fiscally irresponsible, and lawmakers should put an end to the practice immediately and permanently.”

During Snyder’s tenure, a growing portion of the budget for community colleges and universities has come from the School Aid Fund, the report said. And over the past five years, the total budget for community college operations have come entirely from the fund. The study also highlights that the state’s most recent budget more than doubles the School Aid Fund money going to higher education, thus accounting for a third of state funding for public colleges and universities.

But James Hohman, director of fiscal policy for the free-market think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in response to the report, defended the practice, saying it is “expressly permitted by the state constitution.”

“Are they going to criticize rain for being wet next?” he said.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said the state needs to fund public education at all levels.

“Undercutting education and all the other tax cuts have really worked to decimate the funding that our students need,” he said. “We think the school aid should be for K-12, but they absolutely must then fund universities and community colleges the way they need to be funded out of the general fund.”

The Michigan League for Public Policy study, titled, “A Hard Habit to Break: The Raiding of K-12 Funds for Postsecondary Education,” said additional funding is needed for the state’s educational initiatives such as Early On Michigan, an early intervention program to identify and treat children from birth to 36 months with special needs. Early On receives $12.4 million in federal funding, and for the first time, state legislators approved $5 million from the School Aid Fund in the 2019 budget. But the Early On Foundation said the program needs an estimated $63 million to serve all students who need early intervention.

The Michigan League for Public Policy also advocated more School Aid Fund money go to the state’s At Risk School Aid Program, a school-based effort to improve reading skills among students who are falling behind. (A new state law will require third-graders to test as proficient in reading, or be held back.)  

Craig Thiel, research director for the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said there is nothing unlawful about the way the money has been diverted. “All money that the state collects is green,” he said, “and can be spent within the letter of the law wherever it’s allowed to be spent.”

He said it’s hard to know if the money shifted to colleges and universities would have translated into K-12 academic gains.

“The question is would that have helped stymie or mitigate the slide of test scores in the state?” he said. “If the money had been put in classrooms, would the scores in Detroit, Flint, Livonia, and Birmingham be any better? We just don’t know.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.