CURT FINCH: A creeping normality

As Halloween approaches, we must remind ourselves that Michigan schools have been living Halloween for the past ten years! With the shrinking tax base, loss of students to other states, less births and the legislature’s mythical Chinese torture approach of a “thousand small cuts” to K-12 funding, your local school has seen their economic resources dwindle while oversight has doubled. Finding the right explanation of these past years can be hard to quantify. The on-line encyclopedia called Wikipedia has a great definition of “death by a thousand small cuts” as a creeping normality: the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable. People get used to it, so it seems normal. I believe many of our Michigan governments are strategically using this approach to avoid public uproar; the loser is your local school.

The lobbyist from the Michigan Association of School Boards has reported that since January of this year more than 45 tax-break bills have been introduced which reduce the resources put into the School Aid Fund (SAF) – and that’s just this year! Many of these tax breaks seem relatively small, $10 million here or $40 million there; a large one, the used car trade-in bill, will hit the SAF for $152 million. The total projected House proposals this year will hit the $238 million mark if passed. These numbers do not include the hundreds of millions already taken out of the SAF and sent to higher education and business tax breaks.

As the election comes into focus here pretty soon, you will begin to hear how the schools have seen increased funding. I’ve actually seen the material! The quote is this, “spending on schools has increased…” Although partially true, the dollars for the classroom have been dramatically reduced! Legislators have taken many of those classroom dollars and moved them to the state’s obligations, such as health care, auditing, retirement costs and mandates. A good analogy may be the Police Chief announcing new cars for their officers this year, but the officers will have to pay for their own patrol gas, AND the money that is saved, will help fund Microsoft’s Las Vegas Convention! Many local governments throughout the state also do this approach as well when providing tax breaks to businesses with the guise of stimulating economic growth – the small cuts to schools are quickly adding up.

The good news is that some government officials, like House Representative Jon Switalski of Warren, are starting to ask probing questions. Jon recently raised his hand and asked some questions to his legislative friends such as, “How does this piece of legislation impact the SAF? Why can’t we hold the SAF harmless?” So the next time you have a legislator’s ear, you can ask the question of why billions of dollars from the SAF (originally designed for K-12) are being diverted to businesses, higher education, retirement, mandates, and more tax breaks. After they are done spinning the answer, the next question is how are you going to get more dollars to the K-12 classrooms this year? A “creeping normality” sounds pretty scary to me IF you don’t know its coming. We now know what is happening with K-12 funding in our state; don’t let our officials get away with the plan without some probing questions. If you don’t ask, they assume you don’t object.

Finch can be reached at or followed on Twitter at CFinchMOISD