When Equal Is Not So Equal

SCHOOL officials in this crossroads town of shoe-box houses and nodding oil wells do not consider themselves radicals.

But like many modern revolutionaries, they know how a sweet victory for dramatic change can quickly and unexpectedly go sour.

Local officials won notoriety for defying the state and closing schools in March 1993 because property tax revenues could not meet education costs. They made Kalkaska the rallying cry across Michigan for a dramatic overhaul in school finance enacted this May.

In an effort to ensure sufficient funding for Kalkaska and other towns of modest means, Michigan now finances its 3,286 public schools through sales and other state taxes, rather than just relying on local property taxes.

The radical tax revision, led by conservative Gov. John Engler (R), seeks to curtail rising property taxes and promote equality in education. Before the change, some poor towns in Michigan had spent just one-third the amount to educate a student as wealthy communities.

Several other states have looked to the Michigan finance scheme as a way to close the gap between rich and needy school districts.

But when it comes to education finance, Kalkaska school officials believe Michigan is not necessarily an honor roll paragon for the rest of the United States.

With the first school year with greater state funding well under way, the officials complain that state financing is inadequate and uncertain.

They worry the state, now that it controls the purse strings, might seek to widen its powers over curriculum. Also, the wealthy still enjoy schooling far superior to that of students in poor districts, they say.

Most disturbing, they say that although the state guaranteed Kalkaska and other districts a baseline spending level of $4,200 per pupil, it has also required districts to pay more for employee pensions and other costs.

Previously, Kalkaska paid 6 percent of the district's retirement costs. Now it must pay more than 18 percent, or tens of thousands of dollars more than before.

``The basic grant from Lansing is higher this year, but the state makes us take up a much bigger share for retirement, so we're not that much more ahead,'' says Stafford Wood, principal of the Kalkaska High School.

Consequently, Kalkaska schools still cannot make ends meet. Last month, taxpayers rejected a local tax initiative that would have ensured sufficient funding for school supplies and sports.

``I think it's a shame that we have the Michigan Biology Teacher of the Year but he doesn't have enough supplies with which to teach,'' says Dawn MacKeller, president of People Actively Supporting Schools, an organzation for parents with children in public schools.

``Things are pretty much the way they were before the changes in school finance; it will take several years before we see some great improvement,'' says Ms. MacKeller.

Debt burden, too

The district faces an unusual strain from tens of thousands of dollars of debt it incurred during the 1993-1994 school year to avoid shutting down prematurely for a second time, she says.

Kalkaska spends $2,000 for the education of each pupil and Lansing helps it meet the statewide baseline by providing $2,200.

But the state allotment is based on uncertain tax revenue and the sometimes fickle commitment of state lawmakers to education.

``The question is, will the money be there every year? State officials can't be sure that they will have the money,'' says Mr. Wood, former business director for Kalkaska schools.

``There's no constitutional guarantee of funding in the off years, that's true,'' says Nick Khouri, chief deputy treasurer for the state of Michigan.

``But compared to the old system [of relying on local property taxes], state taxes are a much more predictable and stable revenue base,'' says Mr. Khouri.

Now that state officials control the coffers for education, they have toughened state guidelines for school accreditation, say Kalkaska school officials.

Also, Lansing now requires high school students starting sophomore year to pass annual proficiency tests in order to receive a state-endorsed diploma.

Local officials are concerned the state is undermining too much grass-roots autonomy in education.

More state control

``There is a lot more state involvement in curriculum and education guidelines than before,'' says Wood.

State officials acknowledge that they are setting targets for test scores, graduation standards, and other performance levels. But they say they will give local schools plenty of flexibility in reaching those goals.

``We could exert more state control under either system, so raising the proportion of state funding for education will not increase the pressures for centralization,'' says Khouri.

Finally, Kalkaska officials complain that despite the ballyhooed effort to equalize schooling statewide, wealthy districts still lavish their students with spending as much as 35 percent greater than what Kalkaska and most other districts spend on their pupils.

``No matter what school you're in, the number of dollars behind each child should be equal,'' Wood says.

``But we're still not even close to being equal,'' he adds.

State officials acknowledge that suburban Grosse Pointe and rural Bad Axe still educate their students at spending levels as vastly divergent as the names of their towns.

``Is it complete equality? No, it isn't,'' says Khouri. ``Is the system more equal than before the reform? The answer is clearly yes. We brought up the bottom substantially and the growth in funding for the richer districts will be less than the growth for poorer ones,'' he adds.

Still, Kalkaska is suspicious.

``People in Kalkaska are wary of state-controlled funding for education. They're skeptical that the state will make good on its commitment to public schools,'' says MacKeller.

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