News

Schools: more for at-risk, less for cyber/private kids

DAVID EGGERT

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LANSING - Faced with discouraging test scores, Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing a shift so much more state money is spent on academically at-risk students and less goes toward educating private students and those attending online charter schools.

He also wants to continue closing the gap between Michigan’s lower- and higher- funded districts — to $668 per pupil under his $14.3 billion school aid budget that would again commit more to the increasingly costly teacher retirement system.

Snyder’s plan, which would increase overall spending by1percent and hike basic per-student aid by between $50 and $100, is largely being embraced by traditional school interests. But Republicans who control the Legislature and schoolchoice advocates oppose some facets, and negotiations will shape just how much each district can expect for next school year.

For the second time in three years, Snyder is seeking a big boost — 40 percent — in “at-risk” spending, which is based on the number of children who are provided free meals at school. He wants to increase the extra funding for each disadvantaged student by $105, make131,000 more kids eligible statewide — a 24 percent increase to nearly 680,000 — and no longer prohibit the 40 highest-funded districts from qualifying.

Robbie Jameson, education director in the state budget office, told lawmakers last week that a finance study conducted for the state last year and other reports show that steering spending toward lowincome students and English language learners has more of an impact on mathand reading proficiency than does increasing general operations funding.

“The research is showing we really need to target the funding to make a difference,”she said. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national yardstick by which to measure student achievement, Michigan ranks an abysmal 46th-lowest in fourth-grade reading and 42nd-worst in fourth-grade math, according to Jameson.

As Snyder tries to turn around academic performance, he is pushing to slash funding that helps to educate private school and home-schooled kids. The spending, which totals $115 million this fiscal year, is allowed under “share time” arrangements that provide extra state aid to public schools that enroll more than 100,000 nonpublic students part-time in non-core, elective classes such as art and band.

While the number of shared-time students remains small, representing the equivalent of 15,500 full-time pupils out of 1.5 million, the dual enrollment program’s popularity has doubled in five years. The Snyder administration, which is proposing to cap the spending at $60 million so the savings can be used for other K-12 spending, says some classes being offered include archery, aqua yoga and “virtual skiing.”

“We have to focus the limited dollars we have on core subjects to help students get their reading and math skills down,” Jameson said.

But Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican who chairs the House K-12 budget subcommittee, said it will be difficult for Snyder to win legislative approval to cut the funding.

“It’s become a part of the fabric, if you will, of a lot of the schools delivering services,” he said, saying he is “befuddled” by the proposal.

Republican Sen. Goeff Hansen of Hart, who will craft the Senate’s version of the K-12 budget, said the shared-time program is a “win-win.”

GOP legislators also are resisting Snyder’s call to cut per-student funding by 20percent for cyber charter schools. Snyder says their costs are lower than they are for brick-and-mortar school buildings. But both Hansen and Kelly said students should get equivalent funding regardless.

The minimum per-pupil allowance — which most districts receive, including charter academies — would rise by $100 to $7,611. Districts at the higher end would get $8,279, or $50 more. In a wrinkle, Snyder also wants to give schools another $50 for each high school student to reflect higher educational costs in high school. That is drawing concerns from charter officials who tend to open K-8 schools and not high schools.

Craig Thiel, a senior research associate for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said the governor’s proposals to differentiate funding — both through increased at-risk spending and a special allotment for high schools — are “significant.” He also said some entrepreneurial districts in particular have advertised their elective classes to private and home-schooled students to reduce budget deficits while othersare not offering shared-time services.

Snyder is “trying to rein them in,” he said, but “you can see it may be a little late.”

Thiel said Snyder — who wants to discontinue $2.5 million that was for the first time included in the current budget to assist private schools with the cost of complying with state requirements — is “drawing a little bit of a line” between supporters of private or charter schools and backers of traditional public education in his budget.

Democrats so far appear receptive to the plan, especially after the Republican governor dropped a previously floated proposal that would have tapped the school aid fund to also pay income tax refunds. Rep. Robert Kosowski of Westland, the ranking Democrat on the House K-12 budget subcommittee, said he plans to dig into the cost of online vs. traditional schooling but if Snyder’s proposal “passed the way it was right now, I’d be happy.”

State Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican, speaks Thursday at a House GOP news conference in the Capitol in Lansing. Kelly likes parts of Gov. Rick Snyder's K-12 budget plan but has concerns about proposed cuts to a program that gives public schools funding for non-core classes offered to private and home-schooled students and reductions to cyber charter school funding.

DAVID EGGERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS