This is the first in a series of articles about the candidates seeking the 37th District State House seat, representing Farmington and Farmington Hills.
Incumbent State Rep. Vicki Barnett (D-Farmington Hills) and her challenger, Republican Bruce Lilley, agree their community needs good schools that give kids a foundational education, attract families and bolster property values.
But they differ in how to achieve that goal. Barnett believes schools still need the $1 billion in funding she said was "siphoned off" of K-12 education when "the current leadership" passed legislation that combined post-secondary and K-12 funding. She and other Democratic lawmakers lobbied hard against that move. Barnett said she was told by one Oakland County school official that funding cuts have forced her district into a 10-year replacement cycle for text books.
"Her high school students are still learning that Pluto is a planet," Barnett said. "That's not going to prepare our kids for successful outcomes in the 21st century job market, nor is it giving them the education they deserve."
Barnett has heard about a school funding proposal that would have the per pupil allowance follow the child, but said she hasn't seen specifics.
"I don't mind us doing whatever we can do to make sure every child has access to high quality education, gearing them up for the 21st century job market," she said.
Per pupil allowances already follow students, through inter-district enrollment, Barnett said. When a student who lives in the Farmington district enrolls in another open district, the student's per pupil allowance goes to that district.
"What doesn't follow the child is all of the millage levied for hold harmless, facilities... things that citizens have voted to pay for," she added.
Lilley says taxpayers have been providing money for schools every time they've been asked, and it's time to start more closely examining how those dollars are spent. He said based on what he's read, 50 percent of school funding goes toward administrative costs.
"That's not making it into the classroom," he said. "I think the important thing is to focus on where the money's flowing to and how. Let's open it up and look surgically at the way the dollars flow from me to the classroom."
Lilley stressed he's not passing judgment or laying blame for Michigan's educational problems. He said that as a resident of the community, "I would be insane to want to wreck or cut our schools." The biggest problem, he said, is getting dollars into the classroom.
"The students are paying the price for everybody's difference of opinions," he said. "The bottom line is, it's a lot of money, and we need to look at how the money's being spent."
Both candidates agree the way Michigan measures student achievement needs to be changed. Lilley said the current system is "confusing" and "complex". He said he'd like to find a better way, and to get the federal Department of Education completely out of the states.
"What we should be talking about is education outcomes that help the pupil," Barnett said. "All of the discussions are not focusing on improving education. They're focusing on test scores."