The 3 biggest head-scratchers in Michigan education cost study

Michigan’s new education adequacy study, which concludes the state must spend at least $1.4 billion more a year for students to receive a decent education, should be a big victory for education reformers. So why aren’t reformers cheering?

Here are three of the most puzzling elements of the study, which supporters of more investment in education worry may cause the report to gather more dust than action.

Lots of money for tiny gains

Buried in the report’s funding analysis is this line: “An increase of $1,000 in spending per student was associated with a one percent increase in proficiency for both math and reading.

Let’s illustrate that return on investment using an example of an elementary school with an enrollment of 100. If the study’s findings are correct, it would cost $100,000 per year to get one additional student in that school to score at grade-level in math and reading.

Remember that line. It’ll be used like a club by budget hawks in Lansing every time an education advocate brings up the adequacy study as a reason to increase school funding.

State education plan would add $1.4 billion to school budget

Could it be that students in low-income schools would benefit more from additional funding than students in wealthy districts? We don’t know, because …

A focus on wealthier, mostly white schools

To determine how much money the state needs to spend to properly educate its students, the state required Denver-based Augenblich, Palaich and Associates, to study only those districts that had exceeded the average proficiency rate in every grade and subject. At first blush, this makes some sense – if you want to know how much it costs to educate successful students, look at spending in successful schools.

But the predictable result was that the company conducting the study was forced to focus on 54 school districts that are breathtakingly wealthy and white. The average median income in communities where those 54 districts are located is $76,000. The state median income is $49,000. Five districts examined in the study are located in communities with median incomes over $100,000.

Fifty-three of the 54 districts studied had student populations that were majority white; only Novi, another affluent district, had a student population under 50 percent white. There, 49.6 percent of students are white, and 37 percent are Asian.

On average, the school districts used in the study to determine adequate spending levels were 77 percent white (compared with 67 percent white statewide), and 6 percent black (compared with 18 percent statewide).

By following its marching orders, the firm ignored districts that are getting unexpectedly good results among low-income students and English language learners, the kind of beating-the-odds schools that could serve as models for Michigan’s struggling districts.

The question legislators might reasonably ask then is whether a study that examines appropriate spending in wealthy Bloomfield Hills is useful in determining how much is needed to help students in impoverished Flint, Benton Harbor or Saginaw? If not, what kind of statewide policy can be built from the study?

Where is special ed?

One in eight Michigan students are identified as in need of special education services. In some districts, more than 20 percent of students receive special education services.

Those services cost a lot of money. Yet the study doesn’t recommend a funding level for special education students, a glaring omission for a study expected to provide guidance on adequate spending levels.

While not listing any additional cost for special education, the study lists the cost of busing regular students at $350 per pupil. That figure may also prove optimistic. Some large, rural districts routinely spend more than $1,000 per student to transport their students to school each year.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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David Britten
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 7:29am
Might want to investigate the reason behind these findings and shortcomings. First of all, the party in control (through immoral gerrymandering) of the state didn't want this analysis done at all and only gave in during lame duck horse trading. Then they made a feeble effort later on to write and pass legislation to kill it before it got underway. Second, the report was nearly two months late because of some alleged problems with it. What were those problems and why wasn't that information made public? Did the report not satisfy the outcomes desired by the leaders in our legislature and anti-public school element? Was there anything shady going on when the report was sent back to the researchers for "more work?" Let's see some investigative reporting on the process and not draw conclusions about the findings until we know for a fact the work involved was credible and above-board.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 8:02am
Good question!!! What are we really getting for our special ed investment? Does our investment lead to a life of independent or semi- independent living or is it just a very very expensive day care? Seems to be a very quiet subject.
Barry Visel
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 11:38am
Matt, to your question...We have 2 adopted special needs sons, now both grown, that went through the special education system here in Michigan. Like everything else, it wasn't always perfect, but both sons are living semi-independently, including some level of employment. We were their "squeaky wheels" to keep things moving in the right direction. Like many other comments I've read about our education "problems", I personally think it boils down to parents (or some similar mentor) supporting teachers to get most kids through school. Data doesn't explain the education issue. I left high school with a 2.54 GPA...not all that great. But I left grad school (after one flunk-out and 4 years in the Navy) with a 4.0. Show me any data that explains that! Not all teachers are great (and we need a system to allow weeding them out), but today teachers don't seem to have as much back-up support from parents (or that piece of wood with all the holes in it that gave me pause when I was a kid in school) as they had back in the 50's and 60's which is my point of personal reference.
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 10:14pm
Were it not for your insulting comments you raise an important dialogue.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:09am
Typical of this legislature - instead of doing a valid, independent study to find the truth and facts they stack the deck so the conclusions line up with their ideology. Kind of like that ridiculous tax cut for businesses that didn't create the jobs they claimed (and set up so there was no documentation that could be studied first to see if the tax cut would do what they promised. Stupidity reigns supreme in Lansing with this legislature. Time to start over and toss them out.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 11:13am
Rick, the deck for this study was stacked, but not by the Legislature or other Michigan Republicans. This study was specified and controlled by the Michigan Department of Education and the state School Board, using a consulting firm chosen by these Democratically-controlled state agencies. The requirement that the consultants focus on traditional public school districts (no charters) with above-average academic results and to exclude Special Education from the study was their decision, not the legislature's. You should know that Michigan K-12 education funding per student is in the top 25% for US states, but our average students are scoring in the bottom third. This study didn't give us any insight into why, or how to reverse that mismatch. It was a huge waste of money and effort, in my opinion. Maybe we should look elsewhere to find out "what works" , because while more money would probably help, it is NOT the entire answer. The "$1k extra spending/year will improve academic outcomes by only 1%" i is actually what a survey of the education research literature shows. This absolutely isn't partisan, it's honest. There was a massive meta-analysis completed earlier this year which shows very clearly that spending above a fairly low baseline in each state or region has very small or zero effect on student academic performance. Schools succeed not because of how much they spend, but first because of the population they serve and secondly how they spend the money they have. I realize this is absolutely contrary to what most education activists want to hear. I'm fairly sure that part of the reason this study was 8 or 9 months late was that APA tried and tried to find a way to soften or disguise that conclusion, and were, according to this article, pretty successful The study also gave particular emphasis to the extra financial and physical-plant resources created by local millages and bond issues, because those are the aspects of Michigan's current school funding model that contribute the most to inequitable (in the eyes of education activists) spending by different school districts. Those sources of extra funding are available only to traditional public school systems. Charters can't access those property-tax driven resources.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 3:51pm
Hurrah! Three cheers for Anna! This is the most intelligent, well written, significant comment I have ever seen on Bridge.
Eileen Weiser
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 3:17pm
Many thanks to Bridge and Ron French for this article. I second the kudos to Anna, except that SBE & MDE weren't involved in the wording of the legislation, vendor evaluation, selection, and contract enforcement. The legislature (notably former State Rep. Brandon Dillon, now the D state party chair) designed the legislative requiements so that only Augenblich could be chosen. Contract management was done entirely by Michigan's Department of Technology, Management & Budget (DTMB). 2015 (2013 data) US Census Bureau stats show Michigan as 20th per capita in all sources of K-12 spending; 24th in spending per child. Our 2015 8th grade NAEP scores are 31st in reading, 38th in math. 4th grade: 41st in reading, 42nd in math. While Michigan has many challenges including declining population & high child poverty, our current spending on K-12 is not producing relative student achievement. A 2015 Pacific Research Center study, "Not As Good As You Think: Michigan" looks only at schools with less than 1/3 free/reduced meals (a poverty proxy) and our then state assessment, the 2012-13 MEAP. 47% of these middle- or upper-income schools had 1 class or more with fewer than than 50% proficient students in ELA & math. 79% of those have nearly identical demographic profiles as schools with much higher academic results. I can't remember if that study existed before this contract was let, but using that data would have provided broader information comparing affluent white districts for benchmarking spending. As Ron French cites, MDE has solid research on "Schools Beating the Odds", which also weren't considered. Knowing how schools with high risk children are producing effective learners would have started a much better discussion. I completely agree with Anna. What we're spending now isn't reaching the classroom in a way that's producing high student outcomes. Spending more without using real data on a cross-section of schools that have raised student achievement only raises taxes. It doesn't service students, families or their hardworking school personnel, who want to know what works so they can be successful too.
Duffy Frost
Fri, 07/15/2016 - 1:20pm
Great input Eileen. I'm not familiar with this particular legislation or request for proposal (a typical state project contracting procedure), but there is no doubt that both are too often written with a contractor and/or given result in mind. When we can't trust our elected and appointed representatives to insist on unbiased studies, it's no wonder that so many citizens with no time or skills to be discerning will fall for any propaganda bantered around by politicians, corporations or snake oil salesmen. (Okay - that rant was not particularly relevant or helpful to discussion, but I feel better!)
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 4:03pm
Anna - please tell me / show me where my comment where I mentioned 'Republican'. You showed your built in bias right there. Thanks.
Mon, 07/18/2016 - 4:07pm
Hi Rick - You didn't mention "Republicans". You did refer to our legislature as a whole, and to tax policies were put in place by the Republican majority, but have not been as successful as they expected. I'm not particularly biased politically. I am against policies proposed by either side or both that throw taxpayer money at problems BEFORE the people in charge have defined the issue and come up with a realistic plan for how the additional spending will improve the situation. This "Adequacy Study" is profoundly inadequate as the basis on which to improve K-12 education in Michigan.
Jim H
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 6:45am
Another great article and even better comments from Bridge's informed and thoughtful readers. Where else can you find this type of discussion of important Michigan issues?
Tim Bartik
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 4:59pm
Several comments: (1) The report's estimates of school spending effects are well below those of many studies that have tried to identify the true "causal" effects of school spending on student performance. The problem in most school spending studies, including this one, is that they do don't really have a good control group or comparison group. We have correlations between school spending and achievement, and it is hard to tell whether the school spending variation across districts "causes" the achievement, or whether for various unobserved reasons different districts with different achievement levels happen to have different spending levels, with no causal relationship. There are historical studies of Michigan that have looked at a quasi-experimental statistical result: Proposal A. When Proposal A was passed, this caused a much larger increase in funding for some districts than for others. This is a good comparison group for looking at causal effects. These studies find considerably larger causal effects than are referred to in this report. See page 7 of the Upjohn Institute's report on Michigan school financing (which I helped co-author). The implied effects are from 2 to 8 percentage point increases in passing rates for every $1,000 in increased spending, or in another words 2 to 8 times as high as estimated in the report. (A longer-term analysis in our data using Michigan data finds a smaller effect, more in line with the current report, but I suspect that this is because in the interim, the comparison group is no longer as good -- "other factors" have changed that alter both achievement and school funding.) addition, there are some good reports that have looked a judicial rulings to equalize school funding, and their school achievement and later effects. These also find strong effects. For example, see this recent report by Rothstein et al. The effects reported there imply that for a school district with a 50 percent pass rate on some achievement standard, a $1,000 increase in spending would increase the percentage passing by about 10 percentage points, about 10 times what is reported in the report discussed in the above blog post. By the way, the latest research on judicial-ordered spending increases, because they selectively increase spending in low-income districts, suggests that the returns to more school spending are probably considerably higher in low-income districts than they are in affluent districts. This makes sense. High-income districts are doing OK. More resources would help some there, but not as much as in low income districts. It is low-income districts where adding more tutors, more counselors, lower class sizes, and more summer school would do the most to raise student achievement levels. (2) In addition, there are many school reforms that seem to increase achievement by a lot more per dollar than across the board spending increases. The Upjohn Institute reviews this evidence in Table 5-1 of our report. One on one or small group tutoring has a very high bang for the buck, as does high-quality mandatory summer school, as does high school career academies, as does high-quality early childhood education.