Opinion | Michigan’s school finance system limits vulnerable students' prospects

Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest

All of Michigan’s children deserve an equal opportunity to succeed. Today they don’t have one — but that can change. 

A new report prepared by national funding experts for The Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan’s school finance system limits opportunity for children from low-income and rural communities and other vulnerable student groups, reducing their chances for good paying jobs after graduation and preventing the growth of the state’s talent pool that is vital to the state’s economic growth. The report is being released today. 

The report’s key takeaway: Michigan needs to invest much more in all of its students statewide, while investing significantly more in the students who need it the most. If done right, a revamped state school funding system presents the opportunity to begin to address decades of historic inequities harmful to vulnerable students across the state — and to the state’s economy overall.

As The Education Trust-Midwest has shown, Michigan trails many other states for not only educational performance but also for improvement. As a leader in the statewide campaign to make Michigan a top ten education state for all students, our organization has advocated for state leaders to improve key research-based levers for improving Michigan’s public education system, from investing more in educator effectiveness to evidence-based strategies to dramatically boost third-grading reading levels. 

Never before, though, has our organization focused so deeply on funding as we do in this new report, for good reason: Money alone is insufficient for educational transformation. Yet money matters, especially for vulnerable students. Increases in education spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. 

As a data-driven, research-based organization, we follow the data. And a growing body of evidence show Michigan is facing a real crisis for equitable school funding. Michigan ranks in the bottom five states nationally for funding gaps between states’ high-poverty and affluent school districts. Indeed, Michigan is one of only 16 states providing less funding to its highest-poverty districts than to its lowest-poverty districts. The Education Law Center gives Michigan a “D” for how well it targets funding to high-poverty districts, relative to low-poverty districts. 

With this report, we are joining other organizations across Michigan who are calling for moving the state’s funding system to a weighted student funding formula, through which the state would invest much more in vulnerable students: students with disabilities, isolated rural students, students from low-income families and English learners. 

Just as we have pointed to leading education states for lessons for Michigan to learn from about improving accountability for K-12 education performance and better practices, in this report we also highlight states who are leading in equitable school funding. Massachusetts, for example, has led the U.S. for educational performance and best practices for much of the last two decades. Today, its leaders have set an ambitious but realistic goal of becoming a top educational performer in the world –not just for their rich children but for all of their students. 

To do just that, last year Massachusetts passed legislation to overhaul its funding system over the next seven years. Under its new system, state leaders will invest up to 100 percent more dollars in low-income students than non-low-income students – nearing what national research suggests is needed to close gaps in opportunity and achievement. 

Like all of our state’s students, Michigan’s rural students,  students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and English learners deserve the best public schools that America can offer –and surely deserve as good of public schools as leading education states provide. 

To make that goal happen – and to become a top 10 education state for all students – our report provides funding principles and recommendations based on both national research findings and leading states’ work including: 

  1. Provide funding according to student need. Michigan is lagging behind the nation in how it invests in many different groups of vulnerable students. Today, for example, students from low-income backgrounds in Michigan receive an additional 11 percent, compared to Massachusetts’ plan of up to 100 percent more. Michigan should follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps and invest at least 100 percent more, implementing over several years as other states have done. 
  2. Provide more funding to districts with lower fiscal capacity. Our report recommends the state provide sufficient funding to low-wealth districts to fully make up the difference between what the district needs and what it is reasonably able to contribute based on property wealth and income. That includes additional support for geographically isolated rural districts.
  3. Ensure that dollars are used well to improve student learning experiences and outcomes. 

Michigan needs not only to invest more, but also do a much better job of informing the public about the systems design and monitoring the funding going to districts, as well as designing and implementing improved systems of accountability and transparency for school funding. 

Michigan’s funding system is falling short for all students, especially Michigan’s most vulnerable children. Let’s follow the example of successful states, where student achievement is better overall and a zip code doesn’t limit opportunity – thanks in part to education funding focused on opportunity for all.

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Thu, 01/23/2020 - 9:21am

“Michigan ranks in the bottom five states nationally for funding gaps between states’ high-poverty and affluent school districts.“
Stats like this can be misleading. Maybe the affluent schools have outpaced school funding. Causing a wider disparity. I have not seen any legitimate study(s) that draw a strong correlation between school funding and educational attainment.

Cindy M
Thu, 01/23/2020 - 12:06pm

Even Governor Snyder’s report showed decades long under funding for our children’s educational needs. (In the thousands per student...)Enrichment is expensive! Computer technology is expensive. Buildings are expensive. Every part of the educational experience (including proper nutrition) impacts a student’s ability to achieve. Common sense should find its way into the dialogue. The idea that poorer areas deserve more enrichment would be money well spent to make sure the next generation has a chance to succeed.

Michigan Observer
Sat, 01/25/2020 - 8:25pm

Cindy M.says " Common sense should find its way into the dialogue. " Then she goes on to say, "The idea that poorer areas deserve more enrichment would be money well spent to make sure the next generation has a chance to succeed." as if it exemplifies the common sense she advocates. But does it? The Detroit News account of Ms Arellano's report says, "Specifically, the report is calling for Michigan to provide at least 100 percent more funding for students from low income backgrounds, provide at least 75-100 percent more funding for English learners and provide additional funding to support students with disabilities." So Ms. Arellano and Cindy M admit that it costs more to educate some students than it does others.

Isn't this another example of the all too common situation of there being a conflict between the interests of the community and the interests of some individuals? Surely, it is in the interests of disadvantaged students to have more resources devoted to their education, but is it in the interests of the community? The Detroit News article goes on to say that "If Michigan's current K-12 students had educational achievement at the national average, their lifetime earnings could increase by $27 billion, according to the W.E Upjohn Institute for Employment Research." No doubt that is the case. But that refers to all of Michigan's K-12 students, not just the disadvantaged. If it indeed costs more to educate the disadvantaged, as Ms. Arellano and Cindy M allege, wouldn't it be wiser for the state to invest its limited resources in students who were less costly to educate? From the standpoint of the community as a whole, it definitely would. There is a significant conflict between meeting the needs of some individuals and promoting the welfare of the community as a whole.

It would be a perfectly legitimate point of view to advocate sacrificing the general welfare to some degree, in order to significantly improve the lot of the disadvantaged,. But it should be made absolutely clear to everyone just what the costs and benefits are. This is something that Ms, Arellano has completely failed to do.

James Katakowski
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 6:57am

Michigan Observer you forget these are our children and the future. These are not widgets so your business model needs to be placed elsewhere. There is much evidence in the last 25 years that shows competition with students does not compute. So many failures you need to fix education in Michigan up front and now.

James Katakowski
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 6:52am

Do not pay any attention, John and his comment of no stats that prove more achievement with more funded for underfunded areas/students. Common sense says invest in these young and early students an example head start works and saves money. Remembering rehabilitation so costly and difficult than early intervention is far more cheaper and a wiser proposition.

David Waymire
Sun, 01/26/2020 - 1:25pm

The two states that are patterns for this report, Massachusetts and Maryland, have far better outcomes than Michigan, and spend a lot more money. To pretend money doesn't matter is simply silly. Needs to be spent wisely...but it matters.

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 1:43pm

This report is all well and good explaining what Michigan's shortcomings are, but as usual there is no mention of how the State is supposed to magically come up with all this extra money that people seem to think we need to spend.

Paul Jordan
Sat, 01/25/2020 - 10:39am

There is no magic pool of money. In fact, for the past 40 years the Republicans who have dominated Michigan's political agenda have acted as if municipalities and school districts--as well as the state itself--had Rumpelstiltskin in a room somewhere spinning straw into gold. 'Do more with less' has been their mantra.
Well, at some point it becomes obvious that revenue has been cut to the point where state government can no longer provide the services that Michigan residents need in order to lead good lives. We are somewhere past that point now.
Instead of rivaling the US's foremost states in the quality of highways, other infrastructure, state parks, and education as we did 50 years ago we are at or near the bottom in all categories.
It takes tax dollars to provide adequate services. We need to invest in ourselves and each other.
There is no magic money pot. It is past time that we raise taxes on ourselves in order to pay for the services that we require. It is time to amend the state constitution to permit a graduated income tax, and to repeal the Republican-era measures past by their anti-government extremists.

Greg Stephan
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:38pm

Golly gee, another study detailing that if we only had more money we could fix the problem for all schools. Must be a coincidence that it times perfectly with Governor Whitmer's upcoming State of the State speech where I am sure she will state that if we "only had more money we can fix the schools". I bet she has a plan for that, like the roads, another one she did not bother to inform us of when she was campaigning. What are the chances we are told we need to invest in our children, our priorities are not in the right place and we should be willing to pay more in taxes as it's only fair. Yep us good income people need to recognize we are holding the rest back by not forking over enough of that good income. MIchigan made a mistake if it plans on following the blue state template as the advantage of those good incomes is it allows us to leave when it gets untenable here.

James Katakowski
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 7:50am

Ada, Michigan now has 900 districts with all the charters as it has expanded. These are all separate districts and must be semi-monitored by the State of Michigan. Lots of money has gone to establish more districts at costs for actually less pupils that Michigan is educating presently. We all need to make these private items to pay for themselves because as it is Public Schools $$ pay for all of the above. Detroit needs extra support their current Supt. Vitto is doing a great job but you must expect it to take some time. He needs support from all because failure is not good for the entire Michigan.

James Katakowski
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 7:38am

Greg Stephan, where has all the money gone? Lansing always saying more with less, all the time. It is interesting to ask what the current Governor has done considering she just started this past year. Maybe we should ask what the GOP republicans with control of all purse strings and what they have done for the last 8 years? Gov. Snyder and his administration with the republican dominated house and almost total control of Lansing with all the cutbacks, I ask where is all that money saved? Better yet where did it go?

greg stephan
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 2:32pm

Where has all the money gone? the answer is pretty scary, especially being married to a retired teacher. In 2018 the number of retired teachers exceeded the remaining workers. with student counts declining that does not bode well. Per the Citizens Research Council, since 2012 per pupil funding has gone up by a mere 12%, with the caveat that the percentage of payroll funding for retirement obligations has gone up from 22.6% in 2012 to 32.3% in 2018 and is heading higher per the numbers. Per some math the additional $1.3 Billion the state had to kick in for 2018, to cover the accumulated pension actuary shortfall took $745 of the per student funding and supposedly the state is only covering about 1/3rd of the cost, with the rest coming from the districts themselves. That's a combined big ouch from the student funding. Afraid another example of those great government benefits coming home to roost. Perhaps that's why almost all private companies have eliminated defined benefit plans.

James Katakowski
Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:34am

Greg Stephan, how about making the retirement system pay for itself you realize at one time teachers contributed to the retirement fund, it changed in 1975 when the State took it over. I believe it was 2 or 5% but teachers had a stake in it. I'm sure a new retirement could be worked out with the teachers, not so sure about GOP. A defined program helps the lower wages of teachers and recruits teachers for the future. The republicans in Michigan are not done beating teachers down so we will have to wait and see. The new teachers that are not contributing to the current retirement system are making the program fail thanks to the GOP of Michigan. I do not see it working unless the republicans quit destroying the teaching profession. Yes cutbacks on the new system could be negotiated to assist keeping the current one working. I am sure there is way to make it work and I say good luck and I will wait and see. How about investing in the current retirement system and not all the 403B's. Perhaps like 10 % for newer retirees into the old system to bolster it and make it salable as well as profitable to cover all future retirees.

Michigan Observer
Sat, 01/25/2020 - 8:47pm

Ms. Arrellano says, "Increases in education spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. " Is she aware that almost doubling, in real terms, what this country spends on education since 1960, did not result in any improvement in educational results? Does she know that many countries spend 70% of what the United States does and yet get better results? Is she aware that the Abbot districts in New Jersey had their funding sharply increased over a period of years, and yet the scores of their minority students improved by less than the scores of minority students in other districts who did not have the benefit of increased funding? Is she aware that Massachusetts' high scores are possibly due to the presence of a high percentage college graduates?

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 4:00am

When will liberals accept the fact that the inherent ability to learn is not the same in all children. That ability is just like metabolisms. Every one is different. Some can eat like a horse and never gain an ounce in weight, while others starve themselves and are still obese. Some have the ability to understand calculus, or foreign language, while others could take the course many times and would still not grasp the subject. No matter the school system, you will always have some standouts who excel. Locally, Dr. Ben Carson is one such individual.

Success in life is determined not so much by the funding of the school system, but in a person’s ability to learn subjects that not many others can, which puts them in a pool of high demand individuals who are rewarded for their talents.

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 3:17pm

School funding based on property taxes in regressive and inequitable. Michigan ranks as one of the states having the highest property taxes in the nation and many low-income and retired residents are loosing their homes to back taxes while subsidizing higher-income families. Property taxes also add an additional cost to the purchase of a home for couples starting out. Michigan needs to follow other states that have implemented a progressive income tax to redistribute both the cost of K-12 education and the resources where they are most needed.