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Affluent Michigan schools want bigger share of federal COVID funds

The tax break effort announced Monday is being promoted as an attempt to increase school choice for Michigan parents. Shutterstock)

Should students in low-income Benton Harbor Public Schools get 172 times more federal COVID relief than students in affluent Northville?

Should Hamtramck Public Schools, with its racially diverse enrollment, receive more than $10,000 per student in aid, while the 93-percent-white Brighton Area Schools gets less than $200 per student?

With the possibility of $3.8 billion in additional COVID relief funds to be spread across Michigan, K-12 leaders are grappling with a federal formula that creates huge disparities between districts.


Many Michigan school leaders, including the state superintendent, want to see the formula for allocation of school relief funds changed to lessen funding gaps that can be more than 100-fold between school districts. But others, including Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, are critical of efforts of wealthier schools trying to redirect money that under the current formula is directed heavily to low-income districts. 

The amount schools receive to cover pandemic costs and support efforts to mitigate student learning loss could change by hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on what formula is used.

The $1.9 trillion COVID relief package making its way through Congress includes about $128 billion for the nation’s schools. Of that, Michigan’s schools would receive about $3.8 billion, on top of about $2.5 billion already allocated to state schools in two earlier relief packages passed in 2020.

In the first two relief bills, school funds were tied to federal Title I guidelines, which provide funds to help low-income students.

A Bridge Michigan analysis found that allocation created per-student allocation disparities of more than 100-fold between some schools in the state, with some affluent schools receiving less than $100 per student, and some low-income schools getting more than $10,000 per student.

Some version of the $1.9 trillion relief package is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled U.S. House and Senate and be signed by Democratic President Joe Biden. As written now, the new relief package would include the most education funding yet, a huge infusion for cash-strapped schools that have struggled to pay for costs associated with the pandemic.

In recent years, state studies and school reformers have advocated for the state to enact similar priorities in the state’s school funding formula, which is now based primarily on student head-count. In its stead, they would like to see more funds go to low-income schools, where students often require more support and resources to achieve at the same level as their more affluent peers.

And while state leaders uniformly say they still support increased funding for low-income students, many argue that basing huge COVID relief payments only on Title I considerations creates funding gaps that are hard to justify.

“Title I Part A formula is an awkward vehicle for distributing relief during a pandemic and must be re-thought if additional federal dollars are made available,” state Superintendent Michael Rice told Bridge Michigan in January. “That formula, while perhaps legitimate for distributing funds to support educationally disadvantaged students under normal circumstances, is inadequate to support all children during a pandemic.”

On Thursday, Rice’s office confirmed that the superintendent’s January statement was still his position.

Seven statewide school associations wrote a joint letter Feb. 6 to the Michigan congressional delegation, asking that the formula for allocation of school relief shrink the funding gap between districts.

The associations, which included the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, suggested half of the funds be tied to Title I, and half left up to the discretion of the state.

“This tweak would ensure that every district receives critical relief to address pandemic-related expenditures, while also guaranteeing that our districts with the highest percentage of disadvantaged students receive the aid they need,” the letter concluded.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, wrote a similar letter to the state’s congressional delegation Wednesday. 

“Clearly, COVID-19 doesn’t recognize school district boundaries,” MEA President Paula Herbert wrote, “and how Congressional funding is allocated going forward needs to reflect that reality.”

School leaders in Southeast Michigan said they met with a staff member for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-8th District, recently, and showed a breakdown of per-student disparities among schools in her congressional district, which covers Ingham and Livingston counties and part of Oakland County.

Slotkin spokesperson Hannah Lindow said the school funding issue is “something we’re looking at closely,” but that she did not have a clear picture on whether the formula would be tweaked before final passage.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in January that the lopsided funding distribution is justified because "anything negative that affects the nation or the state hits Detroit 100 fold" — and state funding of schools is otherwise inequitable.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District would receive the equivalent of $18,771 per student in the relief package now in Congress, under current Title 1 allocation guidelines. By comparison, Grosse Pointe Public School System, which borders the Detroit district, would get $539.

All told, if the third COVID relief bill passes as written and is combined with the funds from the first two COVID relief packages, Detroit’s school district will receive more than $25,000 per student.

A DPSCD spokesperson confirmed Thursday that Vitti continues to believe as he did in January, when he told Bridge, “For the first time in my 20 year-history of doing this work the allocation of Cares Act I and II funds represents equitable funding. Critics of the allocation need to revisit the difference between equity and equality.

“Those who have greater needs receive more,” Vitti continued. “Those with fewer needs receive less. ... It’s actually interesting to observe all of the lobbying efforts and commentary by district leaders in suburban districts. Where have these calls for equality/equity been, considering the way in which the state allows and perpetuates tremendous inequity through the local (school funding)?"

Craig Thiel of the Citizens Research Council said the Title I formula was used in the first two rounds of COVID relief as “a matter of expediency,” as Congress and then-President Donald Trump rushed to get money to states hard-hit by the pandemic.

“Well, now we’ve had time to give this thought and assess where the money’s gone,” Thiel said.

The massive gaps in funding show “Title I is not the right tool for the job,” Thiel said.

In Northville, which is set to receive the equivalent of $119 per student in the relief package now in Congress under the current allocation formula, the school board passed a resolution Jan. 26 asking for the formula to be changed.

“All Michigan school districts require significant funding to address learning gaps,” the resolution said in part.

Thiel admits that if the formula is changed, “there will be winners and losers,” with every additional dollar given to affluent districts like Northville (where 6 percent of students are low-income), coming out of the pocket of districts like Detroit.

That makes the current debate uncomfortable for school leaders, said Robert McCann, president of K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization. The amount of federal dollars potentially flowing into districts is “potentially transformative” for the state, McCann said, making it vital that Congress balance the needs of all students.

“No one is arguing that any district is getting too much money,” McCann said. “But solely relying on Title 1 means some districts aren’t getting what they need.”

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