Special Report: The Changing Face of Education in Mich.

By: Liam Martin Email
By: Liam Martin Email

HASLETT -- Elizabeth Young is a senior at Haslett High School -- and she's worried.

"Some people are more aware of it than they have been in the past," Young said of Michigan's funding crisis. "Just because it's so much worse of a scenario than we've had to deal with."

She's not worried about herself, per se (Young will be attending either Dartmouth or Cornell in the fall).

But worried about the state of public education in Michigan; and worried for her younger sister, who is just now entering middle school as a budding artist.

"I just worry that some of the programs -- especially the elective-type courses -- won't be as available to her," Young said.

The problem began in 1994, just three years before the Class of 2010 entered kindergarten, when lawmakers passed Proposal A. It created a state "school aid fund," tying payouts to the number of students in each district.

A well-intentioned new law. Only problem is, Prop A was underfunded.

"By between $400 million and $500 million," said Stan Kogut, director of the Ingham County Intermediate School District. "Well that wasn't a problem, because the general fund could kick that kind of dollars in every year. That was OK until about 2000."

Which is when the economy in Michigan started to tank. The result? In just four years, the school aid fund has lost more than $500 million.

"We've lost ground with our schools, because we can not afford it," said William Mayes, director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

But others say it's not quite as doom and gloom as it seems. "Federal revenue has increased by double [since 1997], after adjusting for inflation," said Michael Van Beek, an education expert with the Mackinac Center.

He says funding from the federal government and from local districts has propped up the declining school aid fund, leaving some schools with actually more money than in 1997.

"In 1997, Michigan as a whole -- we spent $13 billion on our public schools. Now we spend over $20 billion," Van Beek said.

But he adds those funds won't be able to plug a hole in a state pot that is quickly running dry. Even then, the so-called outputs of education here have remained unchanged.

"Still, just 75 pecent of our students graduate from high school; only 25 percent of students are deemed college-ready by the ACT; and students who go on to college -- still only 50 percent graduate within six years," Van Beek said.

And it gets worse: Schools are now paying more to cover the costs of teachers' health care and pensions; students are leaving the state at alarmingly high rates; and charter schools have popped up in recent years, leaving districts with fewer students -- and thus, again, less money.

"It's now at the point where it impacts kids in the classroom," said Mike Duda, superintendent of Haslett Public Schools. "We just don't have the funds."

Duda says the district has cut its budget six straight years and is currently staring at a $2 million deficit.

And with less, schools are having to do more. The state recently implemented new graduation requirements, including four years of math, science and English, and an online class; meaning lots of costly computers.

"It's no longer a choice for you to use technology," said Margy Barile, a technology teacher at Haslett High School. "We really have to all be embracing technology so that we can keep with these 'digital natives' we're teaching."

And there's no doubt technology in schools has changed since 1997. Students in Barile's class listen to music as they design PowerPoints on some 200 computers throughout the school.

"We have Smartboards in all of our elementary classrooms, in addition to classroom computers," said Judy Tegreeny, with Haslett's elementary schools.

And besides being cool, some believe that online learning experience might actually save money. It's cheaper, after all, to teach a classroom over the Internet than in the traditional brick-and-mortar.

That said, even technology budgets across the state are taking hits.

"That budget this year alone, we've decreased probably $150,000," Duda said.

Keep going down that path, experts say, and Michigan's kids will fall behind in an increasingly global job market.

"If our students are not prepared for the competitive world that they're moving into," Mayes said, "We will lose ground as a state."

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