BY PHIL POWER
---- — The education industry in Michigan is facing a coming tidal wave of change — and the landscape is going to be rearranged.
Money may seem to many to be the major issue, but it’s not. According to Gov. Rick Snyder’s message to the legislature, the newly adopted state budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 proposes to spend a total of $15.1 billion on our K-12 schools, community colleges and public universities. That’s nearly one-third of the entire $49.5 billion the state plans to spend on everything.
But that huge figure masks serious and growing problems with teaching and learning at all levels. Everybody knows the system isn’t working, but there is wide disagreement as to why.
Though the Snyder administration says spending on schools is up three percent over last year (for a per-pupil foundation grant of $7,076), critics say that’s not enough, and that schools have been shortchanged for years. But community conversations conducted by the nonpartisan, nonprofit The Center for Michigan last year found citizens deeply dissatisfied with the results the schools achieve, especially those serving poor and minority communities.
Moreover, Michigan’s patchwork of mostly small school districts – there are about 549 local school districts, 57 intermediate school districts (ISDs) and more than 250 charters – is costly, inefficient and slow to change. Already, Michigan faces a record number of school districts in deficit, with two districts – Buena Vista and Inkster – all but certain to be dissolved in the near future.
State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan is proposing two far-reaching reforms. One would sharply decrease the number of local districts by merging all schools in each of Michigan’s 83 counties into county-wide districts. His other idea is to consolidate all non-instructional services into the state’s ISDs, a step he says would save a lot of money, while leaving decisions about how and what to teach up to existing local school districts.
Higher education faces a very different problem. For starters, state spending on public universities fell 15 percent in the first year of the Snyder Administration, and has yet to completely recover that ground. State spending for higher ed has fallen by more than 50 percent over the past decade, when inflation is taken into account.
Sharp cuts in state spending have led to ominous increases in university tuition – Wayne State University’s 8.9 percent jump for 2013-2014 is the largest – and an unprecedented rise in student debt. According to Bridge Magazine, state college debt has jumped 49 percent or $600 million over the past four years.
That brought it to a staggering $1.8 billion for the academic year 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available.
Nobody thinks it has declined since – and with student loan rates recently jumping from 3.4 percent to 8.6 percent, things are bound to get still worse. Universities contend they have no choice, that they simply can’t manage the squeeze between rising costs and reduced state support without increasing tuition.
Yet this means students are being priced out of the higher education market. Accordingly, academic leaders are now nervously debating how to “bend the cost curve,” including, possibly, adopting Massive On-Line Open Courses (MOOC’s).
The only bright spot appears to be in the area of preschool. There, the legislature added $65 million to state spending for next year for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), the state-funded pre-K program aimed at poor 4-year-olds.
That should provide thousands of slots for the 29,000 kids who are currently eligible but cannot enroll for lack of space. The main issue is finding effective ways to reach out to poor, often broken and vulnerable families who often have no idea early childhood programs exist. Doing this is crucially important; studies have demonstrated children enrolled in GSRP are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than children who do not.
One persistent problem is the state’s longtime habit of dividing educational activities into separate “silos” – pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities – each with separate governance and funding mechanisms. For example, even though the state spends around $1 billion per grade for the K-12 system, pre-K education is not included in the state aid formula. That probably goes a long way to explain why funding has been so poor over the years.
Snyder proposed a K-20 model for learning and teaching in which all learning and teaching activities from preschool, through schools, community colleges and universities would be considered as parts of one complete system.
That suggestion makes sense, although I wonder whether it might be easier to achieve this needed reform by creating a new term for investing in the skills and capabilities of Michigan citizens: "Human Capital” – a phrase which should be used to focus the high returns proper such investment is bound to deliver.
For Michigan’s education industry, these are all major concerns. But there is one more thing they need to grapple with: The rapid, inevitable rise in new technology for student learning.
That will be the topic of my column next week.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org