---- — LANSING (AP) — The two leading candidates for Michigan governor agree the state's public schools need improvement, but Democrat Virg Bernero would more quickly restore funding for early childhood education and scholarships for college students than his opponent, Republican Rick Snyder. He also isn't as sold as Snyder on merit pay for teachers.
Snyder, whose ninth-grade daughter attends an Ann Arbor private school, told The Associated Press earlier this week that merit pay is one way to reward performance, but he's not sure whether it should go to the entire staff at strong schools or to individual teachers.
"That's still an open question in my mind," the businessman said, adding that he has asked teachers, school administrators and education consultants to help him study the issue.
As mayor of Lansing, Bernero said he knows good schools are crucial to a thriving community. But while he supports merit pay, he called it "tinkering at the edges" of what needs to be done and said it has proven very difficult to administer.
"What do you judge a teacher on? Yes, they should all be competent. They should all be skilled in their area. But these are not widgets that they're working on. These are students, who all come in at different levels," said Bernero, whose wife is a Lansing elementary school principal. "I just think there's more important things."
He sees truancy, inappropriate behavior and students who move frequently from one district to another as the biggest issues keeping students from succeeding.
"If you dealt effectively with discipline and attendance and mobility ... you'd see huge change in the testing and the other things," he said. "If a kid's not there, you can't teach them. In the inner city especially, we've got real problems with attendance."
Neither man has given details on what he would do, if anything, about education funding.
The nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency reported this month that the state spends 6.3 percent more on public schools than a decade ago, but most of the increase is because the state is now picking up a larger portion of the tab, compared to local governments. Accounting for that shift, state funding for schools has gone up only 1.9 percent over the past 10 years.
The school aid fund has suffered as sales tax and other revenues dropped during the state's lengthy economic downturn. Lawmakers cut per student spending last year by at least $154 as they struggled to balance the state budget. Schools districts are supposed to get at least $7,316 per student this year, although that won't happen until lawmakers pass a bill allocating the money.
Many school districts have laid off teachers and cut services as they've lost students along with state funding.
While the federal stimulus has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Michigan schools the past two years, that money won't be available in the budget year that starts next Oct. 1. It's unclear if state tax revenues will increase enough to make up the difference.
Snyder and Bernero agree school districts should try to save money by consolidating services. Snyder wants to see busing, cleaning and serving meals put out for bid. Bernero said districts should shave costs by jointly buying computers and textbooks and sharing administrators, although he's against forcing districts to bid out services.
Both men agree Michigan probably has too many school districts, with more than 550 statewide, and may have too many intermediate school districts overseeing them. Neither offered specific ideas on how to force consolidation.
Both men support getting more children into Head Start and other preschool programs, although Snyder said budget considerations may keep that from happening.
"We have to look at that in the context of the budget deficit," Snyder said.
Bernero said he'd make early childhood education a priority.
"We know it works. We should invest in what works," he said.
Bernero would restore the Michigan Promise Grant scholarship program, which gave high school students who do well on state tests $4,000 for college. Lawmakers cut the program last year to save money.
Snyder said he'd restore the scholarship once the state's budget situation improves, but would add an income test so the scholarship didn't go to wealthier students.
Snyder said he'd support increasing the number of charter schools allowed in the state, but hasn't decided what the number should be or whether there should be a cap at all. Bernero — who has the backing of the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union — said he wouldn't support raising the cap unless he determined it would help Michigan students.
The two men agree the Ten Commandments should not be posted in public schools, and Michigan's science curriculum shouldn't include teaching intelligent design.
Proponents of intelligent design hold that living organisms are so complex they must have been created by a higher force rather than evolving from more primitive forms. The idea became an issue in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, when Republican Dick DeVos said he thought the curriculum should include a discussion about intelligent design, although he wouldn't require that it be taught in science classes.
Snyder campaign: http://www.rickformichigan.com
Bernero campaign: http://votevirg.com