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Bridge Michigan
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Opinion | Don’t listen to doomsayers – Michigan schools get plenty of money

You wouldn’t know it from many of those who work in the education field or much of the media coverage, but Michigan schools get more money than they ever have. In total, this funding topped $15,000 per student this year – and that’s not including billions more coming in from federal COVID relief funds.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy and Jarrett Skorup is director of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. (
Ben DeGrow is director of education policy and Jarrett Skorup is director of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. (Courtesy photos)

This fact is scarcely known. Why? Because of the misleading way K-12 education is written about consistently. Consider a recent guest column for Bridge Michigan by an assistant superintendent at Detroit’s public school district. It raised the exaggerated specter of “savage inequalities” in Michigan public school funding, ignored evidence to the contrary and proposed self-defeating and contradictory “solutions.” It’s an example of the persistent myths that ignore that total school funding in Michigan has gone up dramatically since dipping a bit during the recession a decade ago.

The core of Michigan’s school finance system is the foundation allowance, a per-pupil funding floor for districts based almost entirely on current enrollments. But foundation allowance dollars make up less than two-thirds of K-12 spending. Counting only the foundation allowance, as this column did, could leave someone with the false impression that schools collect little more than $8,000 for each student. In reality, though, the system’s per-pupil revenues were nearly twice that figure in 2019-20.

A selective look at the foundation allowance puts Grosse Pointe about $2,000 per pupil ahead of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Counting all sources of revenue flips the comparison, putting Detroit ahead of its wealthier neighbor by more than $1,500 per pupil.

And none of these figures include the vast majority of federal COVID relief funding slated to come in the door. It totals more than $6 billion and will only push that per-pupil revenue even higher. Districts with many low-income students will get a disproportionate share of the funds. Detroit and Benton Harbor are slated to take in over $25,000 extra per student, while Flint is looking at a jaw-dropping $50,000 per pupil of extra revenue.

 

On average statewide, the extra federal relief alone amounts to over $4,600 per currently enrolled student, a rate that matches the total inflation-adjusted spending for Michigan schools in 1960. Yes, you read that correctly – in real dollars, Michigan schools are going to get more in just one part of a federal aid package than the total amount the state used to spend 60 years ago. And that’s not counting the standard $15,000 per pupil paid out before the COVID relief.

A common complaint is that schools are not funded fairly – some get more, some get less. But too often advocates for spending even more on schools want to have their cake and eat it too. They want a standardized amount to be allocated to each district, but also that each district can levy more local taxes on top of that. Enabling districts to raise additional local revenue will unduly benefit students enrolled in wealthier districts, and the “savage inequalities” will remain.

The best measuring stick for fairness and flexibility is the student, by making sure individuals with similar learning needs are funded at the same level. Thus, the state should treat more K-12 funding streams like the foundation allowance, attaching dollars to actual students. The more students’ families have access to a full range of options with those funds, the more the schools that serve them are motivated to respond to their needs.

Interestingly, those promoting more spending on schools the most rarely if ever talk about the real spending disparity in Michigan – charter schools serving largely low-income students that get far less per pupil and middle-income parents who pay to send their children to private schools with no government financial assistance.

Michigan could follow the lead of other states that have given scholarships to needy families to get help for young struggling readers or parent-directed online accounts to purchase needed services for students with disabilities. Or we could chart our own path and award K-12 scholarships for low-income families to choose their own method of school transportation.

The argument for fairer school funding is compelling, but not if it’s just used to push more dollars into a system that’s already collecting vast amounts of government largesse. The best kind of equity shows no bias in funding students to pursue their own educational opportunities.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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