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Mich. governor ties extra school cash to learning

Michigan's governor said Thursday that the state should capitalize on its brightest economic outlook in a decade by opening its checkbook to school districts — but only those that can show their students actually are learning from year to year.

Republican Rick Snyder's plan for districts to compete for $70 million in extra state money is part of a growing trend in performance-based education funding as cash-strapped states look for ways to do more than just spread scarce dollars around.

With Michigan heading into a new budget year without the chronic deficits that plagued it for the past 10 years, Snyder wants to reward schools for how well they educate, not for merely having the best and brightest students. Several states have tied financial incentives to standardized test scores, but Snyder's plan is somewhat different.

"This year we had a surplus, so we had a lot of requests for funding," Snyder said. "But good budgeting isn't about taking that surplus and giving everyone a little bit more money ... (it's about) rewarding success and results."

It's the same carrot-and-stick approach Snyder used last year to encourage school districts and local governments to shrink their share of employee health care benefits, share or privatize services and post online reports to make their activities more transparent to taxpayers.

The education money would be divvied up based on district performance, not individual schools. Districts would get a share of the money if their third- through eighth-graders have shown a year's worth of learning in reading or math, or have acquired above-average knowledge in several subjects over a four-year period.

While critics praised Snyder for spending more on education, they argued his plan leaves schools without the resources to make the improvements he wants.

"Any money that will be funneled back to our schools is, of course, a step in the right direction," said state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, the top Democrat on an education spending subcommittee. "However, these funds will only provide the bare minimum in restoring the drastic and unnecessary attack on our children's education that left our schools to increase class sizes and without money for books, teaching materials and support staff."

The Republican businessman-turned-governor has clashed with teachers unions after cutting K-12 spending by $1 billion during his first year in office. His latest proposal, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, restores about a third of that.

"Putting a fraction of that $1 billion back into schools doesn't fix the problems that such a massive cut caused last year. It only continues to enrich the corporate special interests who benefited from the $1.8 billion tax cut that the education cuts enabled," Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook said in a statement.

Teacher Jennifer Bonutti also found Snyder's proposed increase inadequate. Her son is a first-grader in Farmington, northwest of Detroit. Cutbacks there have meant teacher layoffs and at least 25 students in her son's classroom, while fourth-grade classrooms often have 35.

"They want to tie the money to performance, (but) we're still going to have overcrowded classrooms," she said. "How can that teacher be effective with 35 kids? As a parent, it's frustrating. As a teacher, it's tough."

While Snyder is seeking $70 million for the incentive project, that's just a small fraction of his proposed $12.5 billion school aid budget, which he outlined during a speech Thursday.

Mike Griffith, senior policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said that while several states are trying some sort of performance-based program, most represent only a small chunk of their schools' spending.

The federal No Child Left Behind program penalizes individual schools where students don't make annual progress, and Michigan isn't the first state to consider rewarding schools that do well. Ohio gives an additional $17 per student to districts and community schools rated excellent or excellent with distinction, and Iowa offers incentives for districts that meet a wide number of measures that go beyond test scores.

Griffith said he didn't know, however, if Michigan would be the only state to tie extra money solely to year-to-year improvement, rather than overall test scores, graduation rates or other such measures often used by states to award bonuses.

Besides the changes to elementary and middle school, the governor also would require results when awarding funding to universities and community colleges.

Higher education, which saw its funding cut 15 percent in the current budget, would get a 3 percent increase — but only for universities and colleges that meet certain benchmark improvements in the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to all students and to low-income students receiving Pell Grants.

Michigan State Board of Education member John Austin, a Democrat, said Snyder is taking the right steps to reward public schools, community colleges and universities for their performance. But he worries funding remains too low, noting that cuts to elementary, secondary and higher education have been "decimating" in recent years.

"We have not combined accountability reforms with sufficient resources to empower great teaching, and turbocharge our colleges and universities as engines of opportunity," Austin said. "Other states and countries are much more committed to education."

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Follow Kathy Barks Hoffman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kathybhoffman

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