Late in the lame duck legislative session of 2014, Democrats won what they thought was a major victory in getting the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder to agree to a study of how much it actually costs to educate a child in Michigan.
Though the study had been long avoided for fear it would suggest schools are way underfunded, Republican leaders traded their support for the study in return for Democrats' "yes" votes for the Proposal 1 highway funding plan, soundly rejected by voters the following May.
Now, three months after its release, the Michigan Education Finance Study remains more an item of curiosity -- think meteor landing -- than the bombshell intended by Democrats and feared by Republicans. To date, it appears unlikely the report's impact on the education/legislative landscape will resemble the crater left by meteor or man-made missile.
True to expectations, the report suggested Michigan does not spend enough on education to achieve the desired proficiency levels or the demands set for students and schools on the MSTEP and the SAT. The report recommends a base foundation of $8,667 per student; most districts receive the current base (lowest) foundation amount of $7,511.
Unfortunately, the study did not provide the information most desired, or expected. Authors Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) are best known for studies conducted in other states that asked how much money it would take to educate all children to the desired level of proficiency. These studies take the desired proficiency levels on the state assessment or, alternatively, on the National Assessment of Educational Achievement (NAEP), and recommend the annual amount of funding required for, say, 80 percent of students to reach the desired achievement level.
Instead of requesting a true adequacy study, Michigan asked the research firm for a study based on the student achievement of "successful school districts," defined by the state as those districts that scored above the state average for all of the standards under the Michigan Merit Standards. The problem with this measure is, if just 40 percent of Michigan's students are proficient in reading, as identified by the NAEP, it is quite possible a Michigan district can significantly outperform its peers and still reflect proficiency rates that are not competitive nationally or among neighboring states. In fact, that's exactly the claim now being made by Education Trust-Midwest, which says Michigan ranks about 40th among the states in achievement and is falling behind in all demographic groups, including middle-class white students.
One need look no further than the Godfrey-Lee school district to understand the shortcomings of a study based on successful school districts. Godfrey-Lee is funded at the current base foundation of $7,511 for the coming school year. Across town, Forest Hills is funded at a level near the $8,667 recommended by the APA study. Receiving Forest Hills funding in Godfrey-Lee would make a difference, but it would in no way bring Godfrey-Lee achievement scores up to Forest Hills levels. Why? Because about 90 percent of Godfrey-Lee students are considered at-risk due to their family income levels, and nearly two-thirds are English-language learners.
Fortunately, the study did identify the state's significant spending deficiency on at-risk and English-language learners. Here, the report says successful states spend 30 percent more than they spend on other students -- those without unique needs -- to provide additional supports and services for at-risk students. They recommend 40 percent more for English-language learners. This is a far better yardstick for policy makers to consider, as $3,000 more for ELL students and $2,250 for at-risk students would make a significant difference in providing the additional support, interventions and instruction necessary for Godfrey-Lee students to approach the achievement levels attained in Forest Hills.
In short, the jury is still out on the Michigan study. It isn't truly an adequacy study, but it does document that money matters. It also points out that we're not spending enough to achieve the goals we've set for our students and schools. Many public education detractors love to find performance data among disparate districts with dramatically different demographics to claim money has little to do with educational achievement.
If we truly are to become a top 10 state in education within 10 years as recommended by State Superintendent Brian Whiston, Snyder and others, adequate funding should be benchmarked against the nation's highest performers instead of the highest performers across town. And our funding levels should also match those of high-performing states and/or countries with demographics similar to our own.
Still, this is a start. We must begin to discuss this deficiency rationally if we are to address our dismal overall student achievement levels as compared with other states and nations.
This commentary originally appeared in School News Network, a site dedicated to news of the Kent Intermediate School district.