01/12/2015 09:52 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Michigan Republicans Need to Stop Lying About Classroom Funding

In response to my December 14 article discussing the impact of then Speaker of Michigan House Jase Bolger's plan to circumvent the voter approved constitutional amendment that required a certain percentage of the sales tax on fuel be used to fund education, now former Director of Communications for the Michigan House Republicans had this response.

"Total school funding has increased by more than $1 billion over the past four years. Citing one single item from the K-12 budget (per-pupil funding amounts) is an inaccurate way to measure funding, unless you want to deliberately mislead people. In addition, per-pupil funding is a very poor measure of how well a school district will perform. When the Highland Park schools collapsed due to horrible mismanagement, they were receiving more than $14,000 per pupil in state and federal funding." ~ Ari B. Adler, Director of Communications, Michigan House Republicans

Ironically this is not the first time Adler has used these talking points as a defense. In fact, this is a near carbon copy of statements Adler made when disputing claims by the Michigan Education Association early last year.

Beyond the self-plagiarism, there are a number of other issues with Adler's comment that are well worth further investigation. For example it should be noted that he does not dispute the drop in the per pupil foundation allowance of $648 since Snyder took office. The reason he is forced to return to the same old $1 billion talking point Republicans have been milking for much of the past year is because that is one of the few manipulated numbers that work in their favor.

If they were being honest they would admit that less money is making its way to the classroom under Republican control. To claim more money is being spent on education they include the additional money that is being pumped into the teacher pension system. The problem is that part of that money they are claiming as additional spending is coming out of the pockets of teachers since the percent of their pay that is being funneled into the retirement system has increased over the past few years. It should also be noted that the early retirement, loss of per pupil funding leading to layoffs, and the expansion of charter schools that don't contribute funds all have resulted in more pensioners and fewer teachers contributing. The need for increased pension funding is the result of these Republican policies. Taking credit for fixing the problems you created is hardly something to brag about.

If deliberately misleading people is an issue then Mr. Adler should concede that the $1 billion increase he offers has been just as debunked as the $1 billion cut to education funding that Democrats used.

Of course focusing on Highland Park's per-pupil funding is also a very misleading statistic. As Adler stated, "citing one single item for the K-12 budget is an inaccurate way to measure funding." Beyond the obvious double standard of then using Highland Park's $14,000 per-pupil number as proof of anything, the financial data bulletin where this number comes from doesn't offer an analysis of student performance. If there were an easy correlation then you would expect a school district like Bloomfield Hills, which actually had higher total per pupil funding that Highland Park did, to fail as well. Instead Bloomfield Hills routinely ranks as one of Michigan's highest performing school districts

The truth is there is far more involved in why a district like Bloomfield Hills is successful while Highland Park school district failed than simply reviewing their total per pupil funding.

For instance reports show that wealthy students perform far better in school than poor students. Support from home also makes a big difference. But having good teachers can also have an impact on student outcomes and of the $14,000 per pupil that these school districts received Bloomfield Hills spent nearly $70,000 per teacher to hire the best and brightest while Highland Park spent just under $55,000 per teacher. Conversely Highland Park spends a far greater portion of its funding on things like "added needs" ($2,834 versus $1,250) and adult education ($1,910 versus $0).

The reality is Highland Park schools failed because the needs of their community meant that far few dollars found their way to the classroom than at other school districts. Pretending that the per pupil funding number I quote is deliberately misleading while the Highland Park per pupil number is concrete evidence of the failures of the public education system is an astonishingly hypocritical assertion.

Having said that the reason Adler brings up the Highland Park school district seems to be because he believes that the change from a public school to a charter school has improved student performance. Unfortunately the data show that while some charter schools outperform their public school counterparts a nearly equal amount perform worse. There is also the issue of the numerous charter schools that are doing a much better job of enriching owners and administrators than enriching students.

But perhaps Adler is less concerned about the mediocrity of the average charter school and believes the management team for the Highland Park academy is an exception to the rule. To this point, the Michigan top to bottom ranking does show that as a public institution Highland Park schools ranked in the 8th percentile, however after switching to the Highland Park academy student performance has rocketed all the way up to the 9th percentile. At this rate it should only take around 80 years for Highland Park academy to become one of the state's best schools.

The truth is, in real dollars the Snyder administration and legislative Republicans have pulled money out of the classroom each of the last four years while reneging on the increases they promised many school districts during their budget deliberations. Highland Park schools was hit with a higher than average $1,000 drop in the per-pupil foundation allowance that clearly affected their ability to meet their obligations. These reductions left many other schools scrambling at the start of the new school year to find cuts that would offset the unexpected underfunding.

In the end the fact that people like Ari Adler continue to push the narrative that Michigan Republicans are spending more money on education tells you all you need to know about how devastating this loss of hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the classroom are. Lansing maybe awash with politicians who have convinced themselves they are doing the right thing for education but the closed schools, layoffs, and increased classroom sizes suggest that the group most responsible for horribly mismanaging Michigan's education funding reside in the Michigan Capitol Building.