State Sen. Rick Jones' proposals to provide more funding to state public school districts may never make it through the Legislature, but at least he has helped move the conversation off dead-center and possibly created a framework for breaking the issue into pieces that can be dealt with one-by-one.
Ever since the passage of Proposal A in the mid-1990s the state failed to live up to the promises — and promise — of the ballot proposal overwhelmingly approved by voters.
Proposal A was intended to take the burden of supporting local districts off local taxpayers and make that the state's job; voters agreed to increase the sales tax to provide needed revenue. Proposal A also promised to make all students equal in the eyes of the state, at least in the per-pupil amounts paid to support schools.
The state mostly kept its bargain to pay for education, but completely failed to keep per-pupil amounts equitable. Huge gaps — thousands of dollars, in some cases — exist between what some wealthy or out-of-formula districts get per-student, versus the amount dispersed to districts like Traverse City and other northern Michigan districts.
Efforts to force the state to stop treating some students and districts as second-class citizens have failed, time and again.
Jones proposed some logical steps.
First would be to stop raiding the state School Aid Fund for higher education and the employee retirement system. Second would be to finally deliver on the promise of equitable funding. His bill would mandate equal per-pupil state funding for all public districts by 2020. Finally, the state would compensate districts for getting kids to and from school. Under SB 119 the state would pay districts 50 cents for every mile traveled by school buses while picking up and dropping off students.
The first two proposals would go before voters in 2014 and likely stand a very good chance of passage. Most districts in Michigan are getting short-changed on per-pupil funding, and voters would probably welcome the chance to do what lawmakers failed to do in nearly 20 years.
The proposal to stop raiding the School Aid Fund to pay unfunded retirement obligations, a sword hanging over most state districts, would be somewhat offset by a proposal by Gov. Rick Snyder to increase school funding by 2 percent, with most of it going to retiree accounts.
Taking money away from higher education is robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Michigan absolutely must increase per-pupil funding and make it more equitable. That can't wait.
These are logical steps that don't try to fix all school funding problems in one massive effort, and they make sense. Let your lawmakers know what you think.