An interview with MSU economics professor Charles Ballard:
Andy: The revenue for education in Michigan has not grown enough because of bad economic outlook in the long run and the short run. How does this impact Michigan?. Ballard: I think it's likely to have negative effects. And I should say that revenues are down not just because the economy has performed poorly but also the percentage of our economy that goes to tax revenues is down. Tax revenues did not decline proportionally with the economy; they decline more than in proportion, which I think is an important point. It is of course true that we want to be as efficient as possible in delivering educational services, you don't want to be wasteful, and if we can find ways to get the same outcome for less money, that ‘s fine. And if you can do that, you can spend less money and not have it hurt. But we've already made some substantial cuts, especially in higher education, but also in K-12, and the more you cut the spending, the more difficult it becomes to maintain quality education.
One point I like to make is, most of the discussion in Michigan is centered around how can we maintain our current levels of educational outcomes. I think we ought to do better, and that might cost more money. For instance, we know that Americans in general and Michigan residents in particular don't do as well on math as people from many other countries. There's evidence and a lot of evidence comes out of the MSU College of Education for why it is that the Americans don't do math as well. It's not that they're stupid. It's just that they don't spend as much time on math as people in other countries. More time on task, that means that building has to be kept open longer and have the teachers there, and the janitors there and the bus drivers for a longer period. It would be difficult to do that without costing money.
And the longer you go with mediocre educational outcomes, the worse it will be. Because it's a very competitive global economy and it's an economy nowadays which is really awarding highly educated people. And if we don't have as many highly educated people, then we won't do as well.
A: Does more money in education mean better education, less money in education mean worse education?
B: Following on what I said a minute ago, just throwing money at it won't solve the problem by itself. In other words, it's not one to one. My view of it is spending money is an important part but not the only part. You still have to have good incentives for teachers, and in fact, I think we should make it easier to get rid of teachers if we can demonstrate that they are not good, that they're not doing the job. But also you need a culture of learning where the parents will turn off the TV set, shut off the kids' cell phone and text messenger and play station and xbox360 and computer, and make the child do the homework. Because if you don't have all of those pieces, you won't necessary get good educational outcomes. So it's not just money. But I don't see how you can do it without money. In other words, money is necessary but not sufficient.
A: In your book, "Michigan's Economic Future: A New Look", you suggested we should have a system that is established on the basis of poor districts getting "an acceptable level" of resources to educate their children then the districts can raise additional revenue if they want. How do you determine the "acceptable level"?
B: Well of course that's very difficult. My sense is if I were to do it the way I think would be best, if I didn't have a legislature to get the law through, I would substantially increase our early childhood programs, I would have full day kindergarten everywhere in Michigan, I would have a longer school year. Even if we can find some additional savings through sharing services across district lines (which I think there are still additional saving can be found) and through consolidating some small districts, and through very, you want to strike the right balance on teacher pay and benefits, you don't want to give more than is necessary but you want to pay enough to get good teachers. So that's say we do everything we can to save money, my sense of it is it will still be necessary to spend more in total because having a longer school year, having full-day kindergarten, having more early childhood those would take money for sure. I can't give you a precise: $9000 is the correct number. I would feel better if we could bring up some of the lower school districts even further. What is the foundation grant now? It's between $7000 and $8000 a year. To do what I think we need to do, I don't think we could do it without some increases in that. Maybe something on the order of $1000 at minimum per child. But that's rough guesswork. It's very difficult to come up with "the optimal number is $8344.17".
A: But if you change the current system which is mostly state control to the system you're proposing, it would widen the gap more. How do you balance that?
B: That's another one. It's very delicate. I don't want to widen the gap a whole lot. But my main concern is not to keep Bloomfield Hills low; my main concern is to get back schools up. My goal would be for the state to provide a floor that we all can agree is really adequate for even the poorest districts and then let the more affluent districts within limits increase their spending. But only within limits and we would have to be very careful about that. Because if you let the richer districts tax themselves and spend on themselves too much, then pretty soon the whole system collapses and you're right back to where we were before proposal A was passed in 1994: with huge disparities. And with each district essentially relying on its own resources. So what I'm trying to do is strike a very tricky balance. And I know some of the people who were involved drafting proposal A, and they worried about it. These ideas have been hashed over before. They want to make it difficult but not impossible for individual areas to raise money. I still want it to be difficult but I want it to be a little easier. It's a fairly subtle argument that I'm giving. Most of these things are not [either] all black or all white. It's very fine shades of grey that we're trying to find.
A: If you have $10 billion that you can spend in any way you want to the state budget, how would you spread the money between education and all other areas (i.e., corrections, transportation, and health care)?
B: Honestly, if I were to pick the first place to increase, it would be the higher education budget. Now I know that's controversial because it sounds self-serving because I work for an institution of higher learning. But we have cut our funding so much that the universities have been forced to raise tuition a great deal. I believe something like 12% of our general fund dollars go to financial aid at Michigan State which is a lot of money. So what we do is we raise the tuition, and the kid from Bloomfield Hills whose father is a doctor can still pay that without any trouble and then we have financial aid to try to help the poorer children to still be able to afford to come to Michigan State. But it's tricky. It's hard to allow that. I've heard many stories of students working many hours at a job even while they were attending college, trying to pay their bills or who take out a lot of student loan debt and neither of those is very attractive. So I put Higher Education [at] very top of the list.
I would put K-12 education for the reasons I talked about very high. I guess my perspective is we've cut so many aspects of state government by so much in the last ten years, especially in the last ten years but even before that. I think there are a lot of places where we could legitimately spend more money. I believe we should fund the Pure Michigan advertising campaign which we didn't come up with the money to do that. I think that's stupid. Because I don't think we can develop our economy without trying to convince the rest of the world that Michigan is a good place. And also I would make sure we have enough money for road maintenance. So I think there are a lot of areas and there aren't many where I would cut because the general fund budget of the state has been cut by more than 40%. That's really large reductions.
There's one area I think we can cut some more. Although even this is very delicate. It's' corrections. Because we tend to have long sentences for prisoners even for prisoners who were non-violent offenders. I certainly want to keep the murders and the rapists locked up. But the small time drug dealer, it might be cheaper to have that person have an electronic tether rather than in prison. But let's face it, huge cuts in corrections aren't going to happen and probably shouldn't happen. There are legitimate concerns over public safety. You can't stop having corrections. I would also have the state engage in more revenue sharing where the state raises the money then distribute to the local governments because the state is probably a more efficient place to raise revenue than at the local level.
A: Robert Bobb recently proposed using a part of the future state tobacco corrections to cross out the legacy dept in Detroit Public Schools in exchange for reforms based on the "Race to the Top" ideals. How do you comment on this?
B: I think there are a lot of reforms that are a part of the Race to the Top that probably make a lot of sense. We could go down the list one by one. This is another place where I'm trying to strike a balance. When I talk about adequate funding for education, my friends in the education community say "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! ". They're with me. But when I say about Race to the Top, or about reforms to make it easier to fire teachers who are not doing the job right, or reforms of the pay scale to make it less rigid, those ideas were not greeted with such happiness by the education community. Without commenting on every single detail, I think the proposal you mentioned from Robert Bobb is something we should take a long hard look at because it may well be the way to move forward.
A: In general, do you think the state should bail out school districts in exchange for reforms?
B: There are limits to how much money there is to bail out school districts. I think you want to be very careful and do these things on a case-by-case basis. Because if it became clear to all the school districts, "hey, we can screw up however we want and then if we make some promises, the state will bail us out". That's not providing good incentives as you can see. I wouldn't want that to be a wide spread policy. If we do something like that for Detroit, let's think of Detroit as a very unusual case for a whole bunch of reasons, I wouldn't necessarily want to duplicate that over and over and over again.
A: Some have pieced the low score elementary students get and the high pay teachers get and said we overpaid our teachers. What do you comment on this?
B: There are a lot of things to say. You look at the simple correlation. Teachers on average in Michigan are paid the 11th highest but falling relatively to the rest of the country. So teachers are not badly paid on average but our test scores are not great. That at least is consistent with the interpretation that teachers are paid too much. But I don't want to push too very far on that because children from not intact families, children who grew up with one single parent who lived in poverty, they have so many reasons why it's difficult for them to excel educationally. I don't want to say that they can't learn. But I'm going to say it's harder for a child who has grown up in a low income area, parents without good education, one parent not there, it's harder for them to do well then equally bright student from Okemos or East Grand Rapids or Bloomfield Hills. The mere presence of not always good test scores is not conclusive evidence of a poor job teaching. It may be that there was a good job of teaching it's just that the obstacles were large. So I want to be very very careful to not just say "Ok. If we slash teacher pay by 20%, all of a sudden our problems are going to be solved" I don't think that's necessarily true at all.
So I don't want to go very far toward reducing pay and benefits but what I do think is that the incentives are wrong when it's easy to get tenure and hard to get fired. And also when you have these lockstep pay scales. Because in a lot of districts as I understand it, everybody who has a bachelor's degree and who has taught for nine years is paid exactly the same. Well that makes it very difficult to reward your very best teachers, it also makes it very difficult to respond to the market. Economists can give you a lot of reasons why wages are different for different people and there are probably reasons why high school science teachers have a higher equilibrium wage rate than second grade teachers. But if you pay them the same, that means you're going to have trouble finding good high school science teachers whereas it will be relatively easy to find good second grade teachers.
If it were up to me, it would be easier to fire the ones who aren't very good and I would also like to see a more flexible pay scale. But that doesn't necessarily translate into a whole lot lower overall salary. Especially since, remember from earlier, I think the school year should be three or four weeks longer than it is. To insist on teachers staying for an extra three or four weeks, if you don't raise their salary at all, you've given a very massive pay cut right there because the hourly wage has gone way down. If we were to do all the things that I suggest, we might end up paying the teachers more, not less. If you take the totality of the things I recommend, I believe we're very likely that we would spend more on education and more on teacher pay and not less.
A: What do you think is the biggest misconception or fallacy of education?
B: in Michigan, I think there used to be a very wide spread impression, and I think it's less now than it used to be but it's still there. I think there are a lot of people in Michigan still think that it should be possible to get a really high paying job without having much education. That used to be possible for a variety of reasons. But I'm not sure that we can ever get back to the conditions that made that possible in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That certainly I think is the leading fallacies is the notion that you can get really good jobs and high paying jobs without much education. That might have been true 50 years ago but I don't think it's true now. At least not in most cases.
One of the other things that I push back against and I don't have hard data. But I have a sense that many in the educational community think that we shouldn't practice very much. We shouldn't do our multiplication tables over and over again because that might be boring. But honestly I want us to do whatever we need to do to learn the material. If that means going over the same ground again and again and again until you learn it, I'm ok with that.