JACK SPENCER: Doctoring the numbers to say what they want

What came first, the chicken or the egg? That age-old question applies this year to claims that state spending on K-12 education has decreased under Gov. Rick Snyder. So, what did come first; a willful determination to make the claim against Snyder, or the contorted bookkeeping used to justify it?

We should always be hesitant to ascribe motives. However, it is difficult to believe the coalition that argues year after year and decade after decade that K-12 spending is deficient didn’t first choose its message and then invent a way to back it up.

Let’s review the numbers again; the State’s portion of K-12 spending has gone up from $6,844 per pupil when Snyder took office to $7,545 per pupil in the current year, a $66 1increase. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, per pupil spending on Michigan public schools is $12,644 when local and federal dollars are added in.

Michigan is ranked 8th in the nation in per pupil spending when adjusted for per capita income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau had Michigan ranked 26th in per pupil spending overall, but that has been reassessed and it now ranks Michigan 22nd.

The “It’s Never Enough” K-12 spending coalition consists of the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and any number of groups that ceaselessly lobby for more K-12 dollars. They seem to base their claim that school spending under Snyder has dipped by not including funding schools receive but aren’t allowed to spend at their own discretion. Try that imaginative method of computing your income the next time you file your Income Tax and see where it gets you.

Then the coalition seeks to further confuse the issue by saying the State took $1 billion out of K-12 spending when — under Snyder — it repealed the hated Michigan Business Tax (MBT) and reshuffled the state’s revenue streams in 2011. This is apparently a bait and switch maneuver that has no grounds whatsoever and relies totally on the ignorance and distraction of some would-be voters.

Here’s what seems to have happened. The “It’s Never Enough” coalition wanted to say K-12 spending had diminished under Snyder and also wanted to say he’d cut the spending to give tax breaks to big business. The fact that the tax breaks involved in the State’s revenue stream restructuring went to small businesses is so deeply embedded in the tangle of misinformation that mentioning it almost seems like digressing. That’s because, it doesn’t matter whether the cuts were for big businesses or for small businesses, K-12 spending went up by $661 per pupil.

To put it bluntly, forget the smoke and mirrors, up is up, an increase is an increase, and $7,545 will always be more than $6,844.

In concocting a basis for its desired message, what the “It’s Never Enough” coalition has actually done is depart from the way K-12 spending has traditionally been measured. It would be like showing up for a football game in an Alice Through the Looking Glass world, where the referee tells you touchdowns now count four points instead of six, and field goals count one point instead of three.

To paraphrase what someone once said, “the bigger the falsehood, the more people will believe it. That seems to be what the “It’s Never Enough” coalition is now resorting to.

In the end, the K-12 spending reduction claims are aimed at boosting turnout from what might be termed the “education community, a majority of which is considered a key element of the Democratic base. By the time November rolls around few outside the education community are likely to consider it a top tier issue.

That’s a major downside of using variations of the same generic theme year in year out. The message tends to only excite those predisposed to seeing a certain subject — such as K-12 spending — as the key issue of every election. Most other voters place it lower on their list of concerns.

For decades those in the “It’s Never Enough” crowd have attempted to create a false impression that Michigan is a bottom dweller in regard to K-12 spending. They avoid any evidence that would suggest otherwise. If they were to argue that per pupil spending rankings by state can vary depending on how the rankings are calculated, they’d be making a legitimate point. However, this is of no use to them because Michigan still ranks near the top or in the middle of pack in all variations.

It is important to understand the significance of the U.S. Census Bureau ranking Michigan 8th in per pupil spending when adjusted for per capita income. What that 8th place ranking means is that only seven states use a larger share of their resources to fund schools than Michigan does. This; perhaps more than anything else, is what contradicts the false pretense the ‘It’s Never Enough” coalition promotes.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.