K-12 boost contingent on cutting cyber schools, shared time
By DAVID EGGERT
Feb. 17, 2018
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Rick Snyder's bid to boost base K-12 funding by the largest amount in years is contingent on Republican lawmakers agreeing to cut state aid in two areas they favor: cyber charter schools and the use of public funds to teach private or homeschool students.
Spending on online charter schools and shared-time instruction has grown rapidly in recent years. Snyder said more than a quarter of the money —$93 million — should be reinvested in the per-student foundation grant that goes to all K-12 districts and charter schools statewide.
Without the GOP-led Legislature backing the proposals, it will be difficult to raise per-pupil aid by between $120 and $240 — which would be the biggest hike to the minimum since the 2001-02 fiscal year, benefiting 84 percent of districts, including all traditional charters.
Michigan's 14 charter academies that are designated as cyber schools now receive the same minimum $7,631 allowance that traditional schools get. Snyder said that was fine to cover startup costs when the online schools began opening in 2011, but research shows the cost to educate a student online is less expensive than at a brick-and-mortar building.
Aid to the cyber schools has nearly doubled over a four-year period, tracking enrollment growth. Snyder is proposing to cut their funding by $25 million, or 25 percent.
"Once they're up and operating, being an old IT guy, I see no reason why they need a full allowance," he said. "They can still provide good services with that lower amount."
State Superintendent Brian Whiston said the cyber charters have no facility, utility and transportation costs, and they have lower staffing costs. Democratic legislators have long been making similar arguments.
"We all support cyber schools. We want it as an option," Whiston said. "But I think we want to make sure that we're paying for it fairly, and that allows more money to go to all students around the state."
The Republican governor is also again targeting Michigan's shared-time program. The extra aid goes to public schools that enroll nonpublic students part time in non-core, elective classes such as art, computers, a foreign language, music and physical education. The allotment costs nearly $135 million annually, more than double from five years ago.
The spending diverts resources from core instruction that "improves academic outcomes," the state budget office said. More than 102,000 private or homeschool students are enrolled in a public school, the equivalent of 17,200 full-time pupils. More than half are from just 10 districts.
Brighton Area Schools in Livingston County, for instance, has recruited, hired and deployed instructors to teach in schools far beyond its boundaries. Some districts are recruiting homeschool students by offering courses in music, horseback riding and wilderness training, according to the governor.
Snyder is proposing to limit shared-time reimbursement to 5 percent of a district's enrollment. Kindergartners would be excluded from eligibility. If the cap had been in place this school year, 24 districts would have been affected.
If the Legislature rejects the proposals outright — a distinct possibility — districts will be in line for a funding increase of between $80 and $160 per pupil.
Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican who leads the House subcommittee responsible for school aid spending, said GOP lawmakers and Snyder have been at "loggerheads" over cyber school and shared-time funding, and he does not see that ending this budget cycle.
"It's about funding every child the same," he said of giving cyber schools the same minimum allotment as traditional schools. "That's the most fair and equitable thing, regardless of a decision they choose about where to go to school."
Of the explosion in shared-time instruction in some districts, Kelly said: "Who's being ill-served? If something is being offered to a child of a taxpayer and they're getting a service, who's aggrieved here?"
Proponents of shared time say it lets parents who enroll their child in a private school or teach them at home to benefit from taxes they pay for public schools.
Craig Thiel, research director with the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said the way Snyder is framing his K-12 budget is clear.
"The way they've set it up is if you want to increase the foundation grant, you've got to give these things," he said.
Snyder's issue papers on budget proposal: http://bit.ly/2BAOQwi
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