BENTON HARBOR — State officials “helping” failing school districts are only treating the symptoms and not dealing with the real problem, said Tom Watkins, who was state superintendent from 2001 to 2005.

“It’s kind of like standing downriver and pulling drowning victims out,” he said. “Maybe it’s about time we went upstream and asked, ‘Who’s throwing everybody in the river?’”

He said everyone needs to work together to fix the state’s education system, which has been broken for decades. 

“We know that there are these big issues of poverty,” he said. “... Educating children will benefit all of us, and yet we kind of look the other way.”

He said pretending there isn’t a major problem with the state’s education system is like pretending that Michigan’s roads aren’t riddled with potholes.

“If you take a look at the roads, people can feel the bumps and get the pain of the potholes,” he said. “... The schools are viewed as – out of sight, out of mind. They’re only viewed as a problem if your kid is in it.”

When Proposal A was passed in 1994, he said that was only a Band-aid fix that shifted much of the education funding from the local districts to the state in the name of property tax relief, with school districts funded based on their student numbers. 

At around the same time, he said charter schools and the schools of choice programs were established, which pull students out of traditional districts and create competition. He said he’s not against those programs, but people need to understand their impact on poor urban school districts, which have lost more students than other districts.

On top of that, the state has 200,000 fewer K-12 students today than it did in 2005.

“We say that we have too many small school districts. Then on the other hand, we have a policy that’s created hundreds of charter schools that are considered a school district,” he said.

Crunching the numbers

It’s simple math. Today, each student is worth about $10,000 when you add together state and federal money. With every 100 students a school district loses, that’s $1 million less in funding the district will receive. And yet, he said many costs in school districts are fixed.

Watkins said many of the problems facing school districts today were foreshadowed in a report he wrote in 2004 – “Structural Issues Surrounding Michigan School Funding in the 21st Century – a call for dialogue, input and action.”

He said all children in the state are suffering, but students in poverty suffer more.

“In this educational race, children in poverty are starting 100 yards further behind than a kid that’s coming out of economic affluence,” he said.

On top of that, Watkins said financially struggling districts are borrowing money, meaning they have to use some of the money they receive to pay back the loan. Thus, while it costs more to educate a child in poverty, the school district has less money to educate that child with.

“So they’re not even using the full amount of money for education because they’re using a portion of the money to pay back legacy debt,” he said.

He said a lot of people are watching what happens in Benton Harbor very carefully because there are many school districts in the state in almost the same situation.

“Whatever happens in Benton Harbor, you’re going to have Republican legislative districts that are going to be standing there saying, ‘Me too,’” he said.

Watkins said he doesn’t have the answers. But he suggested that state leaders may want to look to China for some ideas, where they are heavily investing in education and infrastructure.

“I see what’s happening in China, and I see the investment that they’re making,” he said. “... China is investing in everything that will make a nation strong.”

Contact:, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege