The Michigan Truth Squad’s ruling on Mark Schauer’s first TV ad needs a little work, at least where it comes to a meaningful accounting of education spending. It certainly is a complex issue, but it is not impervious to explanation.
They call-out Schauer with a “warning” over his assertions about economic growth and jobs, saying that since there has been some improvement under Snyder, admittedly anemic (unemployment inched-up last month), it may be disingenuous to only mention where Michigan stands compared to other states without also recognizing some progress. Okay, that makes sense on the surface, but, seriously, it’s a campaign folks — candidates give no quarter.
But, it is the Truth Squad’s ambiguity about education spending that is most in need of remedy. Through omission, the implicit message is that the question as to whether education spending is up or down under Snyder is an unknown — due to the controversy over the metrics used to measure actual funding levels.
Cleverly leveraged misdirection through semantics is exactly the ploy the Snyder camp hoped would work with the media, and thereby, on voters this November. Few journalists have attempted to tackle this thorny issue. (Ugh, math!) This is why the Truth Squad must be clearer with their explanation. They needn’t even render an opinion, but a fully fleshed-out primer on the subject would be welcome from a trusted source, especially in an election year.
Schauer’s ad says “(I’ll) reverse Gov. Snyder’s education cuts”, prompting the squad to render this thought:
In his first year in office, Snyder approved a budget that resulted in school funding$930 million lower than the previous year. But about $500 million of that cut was from the loss of federal funding, a loss that was not made up for by the state. Snyder and the Republican-dominated state Legislature increased school funding in subsequent years.
Schauer’s claim is a continuation of a fight between Snyder and Democrats over whether school funding is up or down, with both sides able to point to data to back up their view.
Both sides are right then?
Let’s unpack the data, starting with the language. If we are to presume to be precise, when we say “education” what does that mean, both in technical terms, and in common expectations?
The Merriam-Webster definition of “education” is pretty straight forward:
The common understanding of the word simply does not stray from that primary meaning.
“Education spending”, by definition, is understood as money dedicated to “the action or process of teaching” — meaning dollars flowing into classrooms is the popularly accepted definition of the phrase.
Schauer was referring to real money in the classroom, while Snyder was adding-up the sum total of all educational related expenses — which aren’t as cut and dried as one might think.
For a deeper look at the numbers, let’s revisit an explanation Democracy Tree published a few months ago on the two opposing opinions, based on an extensive study conducted by the Citizens Research Council.
Excerpted from the Democracy Tree post on the subject, February 2014:
Gov. Snyder claims education spending is up, and his Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer, avows just the opposite, leaving much of the state at the mercy of their political allegiances to decide who is right.
The intrepid fact-checkers at Michigan Truth Squad from Bridge Magazine accurately called it — saying both gubernatorial candidates were technically correct due to a “gray area on the subject”. Their brief clarification explained that each camp was merely citing different measures: total K-12 appropriations versus real classroom dollars. For additional details, they provided a link to a more knotty two-page explanation by the former director of the Michigan House Fiscal Agency.
How about a more decipherable explanation?
Enter the policy wonks and budget geeks at the Citizens Research Council — a non-partisan organization that untangles the big mess and lays-out the numbers neatly in an easy to digest format. That’s what they do.
First up, the apparent argument from the Schauer camp:
Below is a bar graph that illustrates the funding numbers Democratic contender Schauer is citing. (As a matter of practicality, the chart uses the most common per pupil funding level in the state — the lowest. Also, note the final two years are based on executive budget proposals.)
The graph takes into account Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System (MPSERS) costs, for both the state and the school district. A 2012 law capped school districts’ allowable MPSERS portion of payroll to 20.96 percent, making the state liable for the growing difference.
The full bar represents total Michigan K-12 per pupil funding — divided by source. Broken down: The ecru-colored portion shows real dollars from the state going directly to the classroom, and the light blue part is the school district’s MPSERS obligation — those two add-up to the state’s per pupil foundation grant allowance to the district from the State School Aid Fund (SAF). The shaded dark blue portion at the top is the growing state portion of legally required MPSERS funds.
But, the important number here is tracked by the red line — this measures the actual classroom funding adjusted to the Consumer Price Index — dollars after inflation.
In the real world, candidate Shauer is correct.
Snyder’s view is probably something more like this:
The governor’s economics employ a broader view of overall spending, including federal dollars, not differentiating between various end-uses of the appropriations — without, for example, breaking-down what money actually flowed into the classroom or was directed towards MPSERS, or other K-12 education policy initiatives.
The graph below demonstrates total K-12 appropriations and divides them on a per pupil basis, even though not all went to students. It includes monies from the SAF, state MPSERS contributions, minor supplements from the state general fund, federal contributions, and in 2009-11, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) funds. Once again, the red line is adjusted for inflation.
As you can see, this graph shows spending is up, even though, as shown in the previous graphic, actual money flowing into classrooms is down, adjusted for inflation.
What about higher education in the state? How’s their funding doing under Snyder?
When the governor took office, one of his first executive moves was to shift money from the SAF to universities, then reduce their funding to help off-set his business tax cuts. (Law prevented him from moving the money directly out of the SAF for that purpose, so he took a more circuitous route through higher ed.)
The chart below shows how university funding was cut by the governor and supplemented with SAF monies (in green). Michigan’s institutions of higher education have taken a double whammy under Snyder budgets. First, in real dollars they are receiving less, and adjusted for inflation (red line) their bottom line is down considerably. (Again, the last two years on the chart are projected based on the governor’s proposed budget. This is an election year so budget proposals are politically skewed.)
End of excerpt.
The Truth Squad might wish to consider taking a moment to closely review the two views, side-by-side, then devote the necessary column inches to helping their readers understand. While an impartial explanation would be a start, Democracy Tree believes it would be a disservice to make this another climate change-type issue — wherein both sides are falsely presumed valid because one can create a veneer of credibility, in the face of reality. The squad must dig deep for the answer.
We trust the fact checkers to get it right.