Opinion | Real funding is down for Michigan schools. Thanks, DeVos family

David Arsen is professor of education at Michigan State University. Tanner Delpier is a doctoral student at the MSU College of Education.

Michigan’s GOP lawmakers just advanced a budget that makes little progress in establishing adequate school funding. Since Betsy DeVos’ appointment as U.S. education secretary, most of the country now understands her family’s dominant influence over Michigan’s Republican Party and, consequently, the state’s education policies. Will the party’s rejection of adequate funding for Michigan schools help or hurt their election prospects in November 2020? 

The interactive map below shows the 2004 to 2018 changes in total general fund revenue and per-pupil foundation grant for every district, adjusted for inflation.

How far has your school funding declined?

Inflation-adjusted funding for Michigan schools is down in almost every district. Click on the binoculars to find your district.

Every district’s real (inflation-adjusted) per-pupil foundation allowance declined over the last 15 years. The median district’s foundation decreased by 24 percent. The vast majority of districts also suffered substantial drops in total revenue, which is why so many have been forced to cut services they know students need and parents want.  

As the map reveals, many of the largest declines have occurred in rural and suburban areas where most citizens like their local public schools and view them as foundational to community life. These areas have disproportionately elected Republican legislators. Yet public school funding cuts, charter schools, and vouchers don’t resonate with most of their citizens.

Earlier this year, we released a report that documented striking inadequacies in Michigan’s school funding. Since the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act launched the test-based accountability era, Michigan’s total and per-pupil school funding growth ranks dead last among states. 

Our report also documented how, in contrast to most other states, Michigan has spectacularly failed to adjust funding to cover the costs schools face in serving high-needs children, including those with disabilities, those living in poverty or who are English-language learners. Everyone understands that it costs more to educate children with serious disadvantages, many living in rural areas, to the same learning standards as more advantaged students. 

The Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative’s (SFRC) high-quality study identified the classroom resources needed for all students to meet state learning standards. Gov. Whitmer’s 2020 executive budget embraced many of these recommendations and took initial steps toward realizing them.

Her proposals did not fare well with the Legislature’s majority, where despite growing evidence of service cuts in cash-strapped schools, leading GOP lawmakers maintained that school funding has never been higher! 

This claim is based on year-to-year changes in state School Aid Fund revenue. It does not adjust for inflation, even though all economists agree that meaningful comparisons of financial data over time must adjust for inflation. It also does not account for the 7 percent of SAF revenue that are no longer devoted to K-12 education. 

The figure below places Michigan’s current budget negotiations in historical perspective. It includes all general and special education fund revenue received by Michigan’s local and intermediate school districts and charter schools from all sources: federal, state and local. The figures are adjusted for inflation.

funding graphic

Sources: Michigan Department of Education, Michigan House Fiscal Agency, and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Funding fell sharply for a dozen years after 2002, before increasing slightly since 2014. After a decade of economic expansion following the 2008 recession, 2018 funding remained 24 percent below 2002, and per-pupil funding fell 12 percent.

A recent Citizen Research Council report on teacher pay noted that since 2014 nominal per-pupil spending increased 12 percent (only 3 percent after adjusting for inflation).  Rising retirement contributions (from 12 percent of payroll in 2002 to 26 percent today) do indeed squeeze district budgets, but the figure above clearly reveals that they are not the primary reason for our long-term funding decline. This is because (as in the map above) retirement contributions are included in the revenue trends. If they were excluded the decline in schools’ resources would be even greater.

Our funding decline is due to a large and continuing drop in the share of our state economy that we devote to education, in other words, a sharp decline in our education investment rate. 

As the figure shows, this long-term disinvestment dwarfs the scope of negotiations over the 2020 budgets advanced by the governor, House, and Senate. The figure also shows the revenue needed to implement the SFRC’s recommendations, as well as the revenue that would be generated if Michigan had continued to devote the same share of its income to K-12 schools as it did in 2009.  

Significantly, if Michigan had maintained the 2009 investment rate, or tax effort, our schools would have $2.5 billion more revenue than necessary to reach the SFRC’s adequacy recommendations. 

Lawmakers seem poised to pass a budget that increases education spending at about the rate of inflation. That’s a reasonable target once adequate funding is achieved. But Michigan is still far from establishing an adequate funding system. 

If current legislators are unable or unwilling to buck the DeVos agenda and adequately fund Michigan schools, Michigan citizens will have an opportunity to elect those who will in fall 2020.

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Wed, 09/25/2019 - 9:17am

This is a cheap shot at the De Vos family. The education funding issue as part of the state budget is much more complex than this article indicates.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 11:06am

While the DeVos family has exerted a powerfully pivotal influence on K-12 public education that can't be denied, Mr. Ver Beek is correct. The success of the war on public education that is documented in this article could not have been successful without the enthusiastic cooperation of generations of anti-government legislators, and the indifference and/or ignorance of millions of Michigan voters.

Chuck Fellows
Sun, 09/29/2019 - 12:11pm

The DeVos family is one of the billionaire fortunes (Mellon, Scaife, Koch, Coors, Olin, etc) that created faux 501 c (3) organizations that support the de-funding of traditional public schools and the public funding of private schools. Their purpose is to restrict public school funding until the schools fail and then tell the public "See, I told you so." A long term strategy to destroy government that supports the common good and protects their wealth and power.

George Ehlert
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 10:34am

The headline should be thanking Richard Headlee, not the DeVos family. Most, if not all, of the decline can be traced to reduced Property Taxes resulting from the 2009 Recession. While property values can and have mostly recovered, the associated tax revenues have not. Perhaps the MSU researchers should let facts drive their conclusions, not political bias.

Mom of 2
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 10:48am

What do you expect from a person who has never spent time in a public school,never had a child in the public school system and has no background in education. Having a large bank account and donating to Trumps campaign was Betsy D's only requirement for the job.

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 2:15pm

How do you think people earn 'a large bank account' without earning and education? Do you think they are digging it out of the ground, finding diamonds and gold and silver here in Michigan?
Best guess the bigger the bank account the more likely they and their children have earned an education and quite possibly a degree. The reality is that a large enough bank account to donate to others is a benefit of learning.

Disgruntled taxpayer
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 11:20am

This may be the most egregiously framed article I've ever read on Bridge. C'mon, Bridge. You can do better. Let these guys drive their political agenda elsewhere. Pointing fingers (and not fully accurately at that) is not helping education funding in the state.

Grunting Taxpayer
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 2:32pm

It's clearly labeled an opinion piece.

Meanwhile Michigan's GOP darling Betsy DeVos is busy gutting our public school across America in favor of diverting tax dollars to failing for-profit charters and parochial schools (anti-science, child sex-abuse enablers) all while now tell colleges what to teach.


So little time, so much more damage to do!

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:03pm

Our universities claim they need more money and yet what do we hear from their academics, money and politics and they want more.
How often do we hear from these academics and when we do, we hear nothing from them about students and learning, nothing about teachers and new means/methods for improving the classroom, nothing about making the learning process more effective and helping more student successfully learning. They are identified as educational experts, Professor of education and doctoral candidate in the College of Education, and all we get is money and politics and no mention of learning.

David Waymire
Wed, 09/25/2019 - 6:37pm

A quick Google lookup of "teaching research and Michigan State University" leads you to the School of Education landing page, chock full of data-driven reforms including classroom reforms that have never seen the light of day in our state. It's not the academics who are lazy. It's the lawmakers -- and critics -- who don't even bother to search for what they say doesn't exist.

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 1:53am

You only seem to see what you want, no where and at no time have I said academics were 'lazy'.
What my comments were about, is the opportunity these two gentlemen have in this article, which is written to the public they talk about money and politics. They make no effort to write about any of the classroom research you mention, do you get any sense of inconsistence? These are educational 'professionals' and they make no mention about what they think the money should be spent for, no mention of how it would change one students learning results, they make no effort to help the public see anything about all that work done at MSU. All they use this opportunity for is to attack a few individuals, They don't suggest what and how they have caused a single student to miss out on the opportunity for learning in any of our public schools.
Why should I spend my time searching for their academic research when they aren't confident enough in it to encourage readers to even become aware of it, they didn't have sufficient pride in what had been done at MSU to even include a link to the work you mention.
Why should I bother if they don't bother?

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:57am

I agree that those asking for more money for education should demonstrate the connection between funding and student success. There is a clear connection between poor income segregated districts and student success, so it makes sense to put more money there.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:09pm


Yes and no.

If the put more money toward any district they should be describing how it will change results and why. If it is simply to pay the current staff so they will feel better about the job they have been doing nothing will change. Anytime new money is added it should have a purpose of improving results and describing, with performance metrics,' how it will improve the results.
If new things aren't working the spending should be stopped and some different tried. Simply staying with inflation doesn't mean value provided is staying with the changing demands the service is meant to address.

Why do you think the 'segregated districts' aren't succeeding? How should new money change student success?

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 9:29am

Please describe what you believe as the connections, we can't assume others see those same connections or that that there maybe other ways they are being addressed. The best way to ensure that more people recognize the connections and are engaged in seeing they are addressed, and that new moneys are applied to them is to have public conversation so they learn about them and are thinking about them, even contributing ideas of how to address them.

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 3:57pm

I'm no fan of the DeVos family either, but I have to agree with the others: the tie to Betsy DeVos seems tenuous and distracts from the main thrust of the article. Why not do the real intellectual work to show how individual votes by state legislators have undermined the school budgets (and students) in their respective districts?

Our state's divestment in education has been longstanding, pervasive, and at times, bipartisan. The DeVos angle is perhaps relevant in terms of flooding our state with charter schools that compete for funding while duplicating services and NOT delivering better educational outcomes. Yes, at the federal and state level, the DeVos family has harmed education, but invoking them here misses the point and dilutes the overall message.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:22pm

The true failure at work here is the inability of our educated intelligentsia to make a solid case before this happened.

Maybe the failure of our educational system started decades ago at the most esteemed centers of higher learning in our great state.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:22pm

The true failure at work here is the inability of our educated intelligentsia to make a solid case before this happened.

Maybe the failure of our educational system started decades ago at the most esteemed centers of higher learning in our great state.