Are enough state education dollars really getting to your children?

Some say vendors & special interests benefit most
Posted at 5:58 PM, Jul 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-15 10:48:53-04

The state is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on the Education Budget next year, compared to this year, but is the money going to your child’s classroom? Critics say not enough is.

Related: New report suggests Michigan's students are getting short changed in school funding

The state announced it would increase per pupil spending by between $60 and $120, depending on the district.

A report on the budget says that local revenue for schools is increasing due to increasing property values, helping to make this possible. The state also is putting new spending towards schools, the “net increase totals $ 23.3 million.”

There is also more than $30 million in new spending on line item projects. 

Critics say these numbers show that vendors and special interests are getting more new investments than kids directly.

They also say that while some of the line item projects are valuable, too many of them are pork.

“There’s no transparency about why or how that pork got put in the budget. They just got put in there,” said Rep. Sarah Roberts (D-St. Clair Shores).

Roberts says one example is an on-line algebra tool your tax dollars are paying $1.5 million for.

Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw Township), a House Education Committee Chair, added it in the budget after a trip to the the company Algebra Nation, in Florida, to check it out.

The co-director of Algebra Nation tells 7 Action News he is not the only lawmaker the company flew to Florida.

“I can’t remember the exact number,” said Ethan Fieldman, Algebra Nation Co-Director. “I want to say three or four.”

Seven Action News reached out to Rep. Kelly multiple times over the course of six days for comment. He called Seven Action News after this story aired to defend the trip and the purchase.

"I get pitched things all the time in a variety of ways. Many don't interest me. This one did. It isn't because of a trip to Florida. It is because this is a unique product. I spent a day in a Florida classroom and saw students engaged like never before. The instructors in this program are like rock stars in Florida," said Rep. Kelly.

Algebra Nation says it makes a great and unique product. It offers instructional videos, lessons, and on-line tutoring. The company says teachers will find it a great tool to continue lessons should a substitute be in the class.

“Technology doesn’t make great teachers. Teachers make great teachers, but technology can really support those teachers, especially at night and on the weekends. All kids in Michigan will now have access to tutoring,” said Fieldman.

Roberts says she would have liked to see such an investment discussed in committee and an opportunity given to Michigan companies who provide similar services or tools.

Several leaders of virtual schools in Michigan told 7 Action News they have the capability to provide such a program at a lower cost. They would have liked a chance to bid on such an offering.

“We should be bidding out all of our contracts,” said Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton), who voted against the budget.

Metro Detroit school leaders say lawmakers in charge also didn’t take bids when they sent $175,000 to Kent County to research the benefits of two years of preschool. They would like to see their districts have a chance to bid for the chance to do the work.

Another controversial line item provides $2.5 million for private schools to pay for state mandates such as employee background checks. Colbeck supports this one.

“If you exempted them from the mandate there would be no reason to send this money,” said Colbeck.

John Austin, state board of education president, disagrees. 

“Just like a hospital, we put mandates on those folks and we don’t pay the bill,” said Austin.

Austin says he is concerned this line item will cost the state in legal fees.  He says the state's constitution bans public funding for private schools.

The concerns about how money is being spent come as lawmakers receive a concerning report.  The study called by for the legislature found Michigan isn’t spending enough money per student to get the job of educating kids done. 

A spokesperson for Governor Rick Snyder says it should be kept in mind that line-items are often used for innovative pilot projects.

"If they are successful tools kids learn from then they could be expanded. If outcomes don’t improve, then the program likely won’t continue being funded in the next budget cycle. That being said, the governor has greatly reduced the number of categoricals since he took office and put more into the per-pupil amount," said Anna Heaton, Spokesperson for Gov. Rick Snyder.