Michigan's Gov. Rick Snyder has pitted a generous increase in overall student funding against cuts to certain kinds of educational services some families prefer. But it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition; there are other options that could be put on the table.
In particular, one sacred cow has been left out of the conversation: intermediate school districts. These 56 regional agencies provide various services within their set boundaries. One common function ISDs have is to oversee special education. ISDs directly serve about 1 percent of the state's public school students, most of whom are children with individualized education plans designed to meet their special learning needs.
The governor insists that funding must be cut for students who opt into cyber schools (charter schools that provide students with online instruction) or shared-time programs, in order to provide a larger formula increase for all other students. His executive budget estimates that these cuts to tilt the playing field will save the state about $90 million altogether.
But a 5 percent reduction in overall ISD spending would get nearly the same effect, without even pushing the agencies back to 2014 spending levels. As a whole, these regional agencies are spending more money and hiring more personnel at a faster pace than the districts and charter schools that serve most students. It isn't clear why ISDs should continue to enjoy most of the state's education funding increases while some of the choices families make are put on the budgetary chopping block.
These regional agencies depend far more on local property tax dollars than do conventional districts, yet a great deal of extra funding has come their way from the state treasury in recent years. Fiscal year 2017 saw state funding to ISDs increase from $829 million to $880 million. That kind of annual growth is typical. The amount of inflation-adjusted dollars shipped to ISDs has nearly doubled over the previous decade.
ISDs send on to local districts about 40 percent of the money they receive, and the amount of money they keep for themselves is on a steep upward track. Today, 10 percent of all Michigan K-12 public education expenditures are spent by ISDs. Adjusted for inflation and the number of students enrolled statewide, ISDs spent nearly 42 percent more in 2017 than in 2006.
From 2012 to 2017, ISD payrolls also increased from 15,400 to 17,400 full-time equivalent employees — representing a 13 percent growth — all while directly serving slightly fewer students. The number of special educators employed by ISDs hasn’t changed much; most new ISD employees are classified as instructional aides or support staff, but the number of administrative personnel has increased by almost 14 percent over that time.
At the very least, ISD officials should have to publicly demonstrate how their burgeoning budgets and payrolls are helping students achieve more. Funding these agencies should not be a priority over ensuring fair funding for programs that families and students clearly want.
Ben DeGrow is analyst at the Mackinac Center -- a non-partisan think-tank based in Michigan.