JACK SPENCER: Thinking outside the school box

When Republicans control the state’s purse strings Michigan’s per-pupil spending rank among the states remains at least as high as when the Democrats are in charge; but the public’s perception rarely lines up with that reality. So why do the Republicans continue to play what is — politically speaking — a losers’ game?

Teacher unions and other groups in the “it is never enough” education spending crowd always claim schools are suffering from lack of adequate funding. They do this regardless of which party is in power. However, at election time they turn up the rhetorical volume if the Republicans are in control but practically hit the “mute” button when the Democrats are at the helm.

In spite of this, the Republicans keep sticking to the same old tactics; hiking K-12 spending as though they expect to be given credit for it. What happens instead is that the “it’s never enough crowd” increases its attacks all the more.

Michigan’s per pupil spending level ranks 8th among all states when adjusted for per capita income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If not so-adjusted our ranking is somewhere between 22nd and 26th. As the decade progresses these rankings are subject to minor changes but the overall picture remains the same; in terms of overall K-12 funding Michigan is in the upper level of the middle of the pack. When the relative wealth of Michiganians is figured into the equation, our K-12 spending is in the top ten.

Yet, politically there is no way for the Republicans to win the K-12 spending rhetorical game. The “it’s never enough” crowd always shouts them down while most of the news media coverage neglects the perspective of relative rankings.

What’s happening this year proves the folly of trying to appease the “it’s never enough” crowd. Even though Michigan’s per pupil spending has increased under Gov. Rick Snyder, the “it’s never enough” folks argue that it hasn’t. The slight-of-hand they use to pull this off is to not count dollars from the state that schools can’t spend at their discretion combined with applying a dishonest accounting trick to the way Snyder adjusted his 2012 budget. All of this is eyewash. Per pupil spending in Michigan is $662 higher than it was when Snyder took office and only rhetorical flimflam can portray that as a cut. What’s more, the spending level is being hiked again for the upcoming fiscal year.

Nonetheless, polling shows that more Michigan residents believe K-12 spending has been decreased under Snyder than believe the truth. Clearly, “big lies” still work if repeated often and loudly enough.

Fortunately for Republicans by the time November rolls around the K-12 spending issue’s impact on the election will likely be limited to the small segment of voters for whom the issue is “the” top priority. Still, all victories for misinformation are potentially damaging and should be countered.

Perhaps the only way out of this persistent rhetoric trap for the Republicans is to stop respecting the ground rules dictated by the “it’s never enough” crowd. If they ever explored that possibility they would discover that an important fact is at their disposal.

That fact is that the amount of money thrown at education is not an indicator of where a state ranks in academic performance. The list of highest performing states in terms of academic results bears little resemblance to the list of states that spend the most on education. It is a mixed bag; some high spending states are among those that get the best academic results; along with some that spend in the middle range and some with comparatively low spending.

Armed with that information a governor could pick a state that spends less per pupil than Michigan but acquires superior academic performance and make it a model to follow. In other words take the initiative by refusing to play the longstanding K-12 spending political game.

This would mean abandoning the thankless practice of perpetually boosting K-12 spending only to be successfully labelled as doing the opposite. Instead, a governor could point to the state being used as a model, boldly propose cutting K-12 spending to match it, make systemic changes that reflect the model state’s methods and proclaim the end goal is improved academic achievement.

Of course before such a radical departure was attempted, adequate polling should take place to see how the voters were likely to respond. Who knows? Maybe the approach would be well-received. Note that, under this plan, the “it’s never enough” crowd wouldn’t even have to significantly alter its rhetoric.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.