Opinion | School equity proposal exacerbates system of winners vs. losers

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly is president of the Traverse City Area Public Schools’ Board of Education and a local Realtor for more than 30 years. She is an advocate for students in the state of Michigan and for equity in school funding.

Rebuttal:  Fund the child, not the ZIP code, in Michigan school budget

Public education has much to celebrate but has many challenges ahead. The recent research and resulting dialogue across Michigan about current funding is raising awareness by the public at large, that funding should be based on student need, and that experts are once again trying to pull wool over our eyes. Funding based on need should theoretically even the playing field, creating opportunities for all children. In other words, funding based on need is “equitable” funding.

The school research collaborative, costing $1 million, sets itself up as an expert developing a funding model supported by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.  The model has drawn widespread support from districts across the state. There’s a problem with the model however; it doesn’t work. In fact, the governor’s proposal does exactly the opposite of what the research says is good policy. Under the governor’s budget proposal, the highest funded districts would receive the greatest increases, and the lowest funded districts would receive the lowest increases. We have studied the data for districts across the state, and it is clear, this proposal does nothing to increase equity. Instead, it exacerbates the current system of winners and losers.

It’s hard to understand why this proposal has such widespread support. Perhaps it has something to do with funding being complicated, or the fact that any increase is better than no increase, even if the highest funded districts get the largest increases. But the more likely reason is that those who have the most to gain from this proposal are the ones who wrote it.  They contort and confuse the terms “equity” and “equal”, and paint a picture that somehow makes it OK for the highest-funded districts to receive the highest increases in funding. In doing so, they put the credibility of the educational community in jeopardy. Who would ever say that the highest-funded districts should get the largest increase and the lowest funded the smallest increase?

The education community has developed a false narrative and our credibility is at stake. Let’s get serious about equity and make base foundation funding equal for all students. That would do much to support education services for all students. By valuing all learners we could have smaller class sizes, more social workers, more nurses, the best teachers, and learners that are performing at the highest levels across the nation, like we did before Proposal A in 1994. Reform is necessary but the collaborative solution is not a solution for all learners. Once again, Lansing is failing us but it is us who are allowing the shell game to continue.

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Bob Balwinski
Mon, 08/05/2019 - 10:30am

Equal - every patient in the hospital gets an aspirin.
Equitable - every patient in the hospital gets the necessary treatment for their ailment.

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 4:04pm

Ah the fruits of school assignment by zip code. What if we allocated schools based on ability, interests, qualification, aptitude and career preperation rather than where you live? Sure some kids will go to the Math whiz school (if they can qualify and hack it) and other kids will go to the Plumber and Electrician prep school (and likely make more money than math whizzes), maybe in many measures, we're all better off?

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 3:23pm

That's tracking and, for whatever reason, is not allowed in US public schools-as successful as that model is around the world!

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 5:50pm

Actually in New York city you have to qualify to attend the most elite high schools.

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 9:41pm

You also have to qualify (by 8th grade M-STEP scores at least at grade level, good attendance and no out-of-school suspensions) to attend either Cass Technical High School or Renaissance High School in the Detroit Community Public Schools. They were enrolling too many students from parochial and K-8 charters for their tastes, and so added a 10 points to the scores of the applicants from DCPSD K-8 or middle schools as a kind of "in-district" affirmative action.

However, any MEA or AFT member worth their union card will tell you that "tracking is discriminatory", unless what you're tracking is the race/ethnicity and family earnings in order to create racially and economically-balanced classes and schools.

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 4:07pm

To add another layer to the complexity of this problem, not only has proposal A failed to address the issue of some districts receiving far more funding per student than others (when those receiving the least in many cases have far more need), there is also the issue of differing funding needs for individual students. Some students require a high level of intervention because of physical, emotional, and/or mental needs, and the cost to educate those students is far higher than it is for the average student. Under schools of choice (which I strongly support), those districts which do a better job of addressing student needs tend to attract more and more high need students. Yet the funding accompanying those students is no different than any other student. The end result is that a district which attracts more and more students because of their past success is essentially punished in that they receive no extra funding, yet place more and more demand on the staff who interact with the students. Meanwhile, the district which the student left loses the foundation allowance for that student, yet may still save money in term of the amount of resources the student demanded.

I say this realizing that students' education cannot simply be thought of in term of dollars and cents. I am also not a fan of simply throwing money at a problem in hopes that it will lead to a solution. But the current system ignores the complexity of education, and most of the proposals coming out of the legislature or the executive side of state government do little to address the issues, and often exacerbate the problems.

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 11:14pm

The funding situation isn't quite as bad as you make it out to be. In addition to the per-pupil Foundation Allowance, school districts receive "categorical" grants from both the state and the Federal government based on their current-year population of special education, English Language Learners, and students "at risk" due to poverty or other family characteristics. In addition to those sources, many Michigan counties also have Special Education millages, administered by their Local Education Agency (usually called Intermediate School Districts or Education Serve Agencies in Michigan). These two funding streams are in addition to the Foundation Allowance for those expensive-to-educate students, but there are also restrictions on the ways they can be spent. Given what I have seen of school districts playing fast and loose with taxpayer cash, I strongly prefer that we keep the reporting and oversight requirements that come with the categorical grants, even if Gov. Whitmer does get her way about boosting state funding per pupil for students in some categories of "more expensive to educate".

However, charter schools and districts with Schools of Choice students are reimbursed at the state minimum Foundation Allowance for those students, not the amount allocated to either their geographically-assigned school district or the district they are entering. This was supposedly so schools have less incentive to "poach" students from other districts, especially the Hold Harmless districts. Gov. Snyder's effort to equalize Michigan's school funding have succeeded by "raising the floor" twice as fast as they have raised funding for those districts getting more. In 2018-19's school year, Michigan paid 405 districts out of 541, at the highest ever minimum Foundation Allowance. So now, for 75% of Michigan's school districts, it makes no difference to their per-pupil funding level if the students enrolling are from inside or out of their district boundaries.

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 1:51pm

Yes, there are categoricals, although they don't cover all of the additional cost by any means. Our district pays the ISD for their services, so their funding helps (they don't charge the full amount), but we still pay a considerable amount. And as far as the 2x increase in the foundation allowance, yes, it has helped. But it would take a lot of years for that additional $100 or so to catch us up to the wealthy districts. Governor Snyder's administration did a lot to improve school funding in Michigan, contrary to what was being said by teacher's unions and other naysayers, so I agree on that point. Additionally, having a state budget by the end of the year certainly made it easier to adopt a realistic budget. Now this year we went back to the bad old days of adopting a budget without having a clue what our revenues will be.

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 10:45pm

I haven't seen enough of the details of Gov. Whitmer's proposal for increased school aid to understand how it is supposed to work. From what I heard, Gov. Whitmer's proposal is to adjust school funding by giving each school district incremental dollars for every student living in poverty, "at risk" for other reasons, or with identified special education needs. Michigan already gives districts incremental funding from both the state and Federal governments for special education students, English Language Learners and those "at risk" under Title II. Many counties also have special education millages that help defray the extra cost of educating students with disabilities. Thw Federal funding is allocated according to Federal law, and could not change under Gov. Whitmer's proposal. The difference would be that the new "equitable" boosts in funding based on student characteristics would be awarded directly to the school districts for use in their operating budgets, without the limits now placed on "categorical" grants or oversight by the Federal or state governments or the Local Education Authorities (ISDs and ESAs), removing the requirements that districts track - and report - that spending by category.

For Sue Kelly's objection that the new plan "gives the biggest raises to those already best funded" to be true, Gov. Whiter's proposal for "equitable" funding would have to leave the base per-pupil funding for our various traditional public school systems alone, leaving gaps of nearly $5,000 per student between some Detroit metro hold-harmless districts and those right next door. This huge funding differential is STILL happening in spite of the fact that Gov. Snyder and Michigan's legislature has, for the past 8 years, increased funds for the lowest-funded schools by 2X as much as the funding increase for more-highly paid schools. Whenever a previously higher-than-minimum school district would end up receiving less than the years' new minimum, they raise up to the new minimum dollars per pupil. Even without Hold Harmless districts to consider, the difference between the state minimum per pupils at $7871 in 2018-19 and the top basic level of $8409 is almost 7%. If Gov. Whitmer has proposed to boost each "extra needs" student's funding by x% of the district's per pupil amount, instead of by a fixed number of extra dollars for each sort of "more difficult to educate" student, that would certainly make the between-districts inequity even greater than it is.

I can think of nothing that would be *less* equitable than to do that.