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24 May

What’s really at stake for Michigan public school children

Viewpoint By Viewpoint The Kalamazoo Gazette
Viewpoint: Gov. Rick Snyder’s education budget, Published: Sunday, May 08, 2011

By Michael Rice, Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent

and  Carol McGlinn, Kalamazoo Public Schools Board of Education President .

Carol is also Executive Director, Kalamazoo at Specialized Language Development Center

and Past Director of Development at Specialized Language Development Center

Web Site at:

Thanks to Kalamazoo County voters for their support of the enhancement millage renewal this week. Ours was one of the first counties in the state to support an enhancement millage in 2005 and remains one of only a few to have passed such a millage.

The county that gave birth to The Kalamazoo Promise, Education For Employment, Education For the Arts, the Kalamazoo Area Math & Science Center and that hosted the president in the first Commencement Challenge last year is threatened, like all other counties, by the governor’s pre-K-12 education budget.

According to the governor and many in the state Legislature, the proposed pre-K-12 education budget would cut only $300 per student in the state’s foundation grant to schools, a cut of 3.9 percent. While it is true that this is the proposed cut to the state‘s budget, the cut that public school children would experience is closer to $700 per student. KPS students are threatened by a $900 per student cut. Here’s why:

This year, districts across the country benefit from federal economic stimulus funds that will not exist next year. In Michigan, these funds generate about $170 per student. Add the $170 to the proposed $300 cut and you get $470 per student. To that figure, add the $230 per student cost of a large increase in the state-mandated retirement contribution rate, and the average district would have to cut $700 per student to balance its 2011-2012 school year budget. Districts do not choose to participate in the retirement system. The retirement system’s benefits and costs are set by the state.

For KPS, the governor’s proposed budget is even worse. The governor proposes to eliminate the class-size reduction grant, which permits smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade in schools with high poverty rates. Among the KPS schools that benefit are those that have 85 to 98 percent free/reduced-price lunch eligibility. Poor children who start life behind in so many ways have benefited from this grant, as teachers have been able to better individualize instruction in the smaller classes. Research supports the combination of smaller class sizes and greater individualization to improve student achievement for early elementary students, particularly those from challenging backgrounds. Our improved elementary test scores in the last few years indicate the value of the grant as well. The proposed cut is penny wise and pound foolish.

Most superintendents and school board members understand that the cost of making up the one-time federal money ($170 per student) and the cost of the increase in state retirement contribution rate ($230 per student), a total of $400 per student, would be necessary even if the state didn’t cut a nickel out of its education budget.

In other words, the biggest cuts by districts in the state’s history would take place regardless of whether the state cuts anything beyond this $400 per student. Another $300 per student would be a death knell blow for many districts and would considerably harm the education of public school children across the state.

Under the governor’s proposal — even with reductions in employee compensation and benefits — districts across the state would still adopt budgets with a range of unhappy cuts: staff layoffs, including teachers, which would result in higher class sizes at all levels; program cuts and eliminations in areas as diverse as athletics, the arts, technology, gifted and talented education, and alternative education; and school closings, all over the next few years.

The governor and some legislative leaders have said that if employees simply paid a 20 percent contribution to their health insurance, it would eliminate 60 percent of the deficit created by the proposed cuts. This is inaccurate. If districts negotiated this level of contribution with their unions — and many have already done so, while many others have employee contributions but at somewhat lower levels — about one-quarter of the governor’s proposed cuts would be addressed, and only if a district currently had no employee contribution whatsoever. For districts like Vicksburg that already have an employee contribution of 20 percent or more of total premium, this suggestion has no benefit whatsoever. If a mandatory employee contribution is such a good idea, the state Legislature should make it law. Many school employees would understand and accept the logic in this environment.

When and where a child is born should never determine the quality of his or her education. Yet if the governor’s budget in some substantial measure is approved by the state legislature, that will in fact be the case: children who had the misfortune to be born just a few years ago in the state of Michigan will pay the price in the form of diminished educational resources — and educational quality, given the enormity of the cuts in question.

That quality education is not all about funding is different from the notion that funding levels are irrelevant. They aren’t. Stable, adequate funding is necessary to educate children, all the more necessary when we are dealing in Michigan with poverty at higher levels than in most states across the country.

Budgets are about choices, about values. The governor’s education budget, currently under consideration in the state legislature, does not value public school children, and it particularly undervalues poor school children. The proposed budget would transfer almost $1 billion away from pre-K-12 education to other state services.

In the last 12 years, KPS has cut $23 million to balance its budget. In the last two years, in collaboration with our teachers’ association and other unions, we changed health insurance plans to save $1 million; adopted and/or raised employee health insurance contributions to save $700,000; and changed middle and high school schedules, the first such changes since 1985 and 1999, respectively, to increase student instructional time and to save another $1.7 million. In the last five years, school districts across the state had particular need to cut, since state funding adjusted for inflation declined almost 10 percent, before the governor’s proposed cuts this year.

During the same time period, KPS has had five years of rising enrollment, four consecutive years of rising test scores at the elementary and middle school levels, and high school Advanced Placement participation that has more than doubled in the last three years, among many other achievements. We have much left to accomplish, and we understand that we will be doing this without more dollars. We are concerned about our ability to continue our improvement as cuts grow in size and as budget areas already tapped for savings are tapped out.

No one is suggesting not to have cuts. The reality is this: All districts in the state will cut $400 per student, due to the retirement increase and the absence of federal economic stimulus funds.

We are saying that, lamentable as it is for school children to take any cut, the cuts should stop there — at the largest in the state’s history — before we further damage children’s education. In addition, we believe and strongly recommend that any additional revenue identified in the May Revenue Estimating Conference should be devoted to reducing this $400 per student cut to the maximum extent possible.

We as a state have choices, on both the expenditure and revenue sides of the state budget. If the governor proposes large business tax cuts and the taxing of retirement income, we as a state have choices. If he proposes not to cut or to increase a number of state budget categories, we have choices. If he doesn’t propose an increase in the alcohol tax, unchanged for more than 40 years; a progressive income tax, as most states have; or a sales tax on services, as many states have, we clearly have choices.

Educators aren’t asking for more money. They haven’t in some time in the state. They are asking that kids not be unduly harmed by cuts.

Budgets are about choices, about values. What do we value in Michigan?

Michael F. Rice is superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools. Carol McGlinn is president of the Kalamazoo Public Schools Board of Education.

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mary

Thank you Mr. Rice and Carol for your excellent analysis of what Governor Snyder’s budget really means for the children of Michigan. It is incredible that at a time when we should be focusing on improving our public schools and the education they provide that will determine the quality of our future in this country Governor Snyder thinks it more important to give businesses a 1.8 billion tax cut. That is what the cuts to education and the increased taxes on seniors and lower income persons are paying for–a 1.8 billion gift to corporations.

We should all find ways to publicly voice our opposition to this foolhardiness. I will work to recall him.

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