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From the Daily: Education balancing act

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published January 28, 2010

The Ann Arbor Public School District is treading a fine line in its promise to keep budget cuts out of the classroom. Superintendent Todd Roberts’s Jan. 7 proposal to manage the district's budget shortfall goes far, but doesn't fix the greater problem. As manufacturing jobs flee the state, the most important resource for future workers is a high quality education to prepare them for a changing economy. This starts with a strong K-12 system. Though the district must find a way to ensure these funding cuts don’t reach the classroom, the real solution to funding problems must come from the state.

In October, the Michigan legislature cut funding to public schools across the state by $165 per pupil. A month later, a proposed Washtenaw County millage failed at the November ballot. Had it passed, the millage would have funneled $11 million into Ann Arbor’s schools. The budget shortfall for Ann Arbor Public Schools now stands at nearly $20 million aggregated over this school year and the next. Earlier this month, Roberts proposed about $16.2 million in budget cuts. The plan calls for privatizing the custodial and maintenance staff, restructuring elementary school specials, eliminating 34 teaching positions, introducing an athletic “pay-to-play” fee and cutting transportation costs, among other things.

Faced with a daunting deficit, the Ann Arbor school district has been forced to cut costs. District officials have identified several areas where cuts are possible, but they must be certain that the cuts they make won’t affect the quality of education. Cutting programs and teachers limits students’ learning opportunities. But there are other areas of the budget that could take a trim. For example, Ann Arbor spends nearly double on its sports programs as districts of comparable sizes, according to an AnnArbor.com report this week. And while athletics offer students valuable experiences, this may be one department that could handle a funding decrease.

It’s disturbing that districts across the state are being left with no choice but to slash programs since the funding decrease last fall — especially since education is the wrong place for the state to make cuts. The future of Michigan’s economy will be based in science and technology industries, which will require more highly-skilled workers with a comprehensive education. And already-strained schools can’t afford to stretch their budgets further and maintain the quality of education. To invest in Michigan’s future economy, the state must step in and increase its funding to public education.

To balance the budget, the state should cut from systems that can handle the decrease in funding, instead of cutting from the vital education system. The state should look to cut from other inefficient programs, like the bloated corrections system. According to a 2008 report by the National Institute of Corrections, Michigan spends 22 percent of its budget on corrections — three times the national average — and is one of 5 states that spend more on corrections than higher education, according to the Pew Research Center. Michigan schools can’t take another cut. The state should turn its attention to programs that could.

As long as funding for public education continues to decrease, districts like Ann Arbor Public Schools must balance constraints and the necessity of quality education. But to solve the problem completely, the state must adequately support Michigan’s most valuable resource: its students.