How much does it cost to educate a child? In Michigan, nobody knows

It is generally agreed that any hope Michigan has of shrugging off its rap as an economic rust-belt straggler depends on creating and keeping bright and shiny new graduates in the state. By the hordes.

But what will it cost the state to produce high school graduates who are ready for college or careers?

Knowing how much taxpayers spend on Michigan’s public schools is not the same as knowing how much it should cost for a good, publicly-funded education, studies show.

For all the debate over whether the state spends enough or too much on education, Michigan has yet to examine the actual costs for a K-12 education that will allow students to compete with students in leading states and around the world.

Michigan taxpayers and legislators simply do not know how much it costs to educate a child. Michigan is one of only about a dozen states that have not conducted what is called an education adequacy study.

“(In Michigan) you know how much a road costs per lane. If you have ‘X’ number of dollars to spend, then you should get ‘Y’ miles of road,’” said Michael Griffith, senior school finance analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan organization funded by the states which tracks legislation and policy changes nationwide.

“We don’t know that with education as much because each state has their own standard. You can’t take a study done in Ohio and know how much it costs to educate kids in Michigan.”

A growing chorus of Michiganders are calling for a study to quantify what it costs to provide all students a good education. Will it mean more year-round schools? Smaller class sizes for elementary grades? Tougher teacher training? More interventions for poor and low-achieving students, or rural students?

Democratic legislators, who are in the minority, are pushing a bill that focuses on determining a price tag to get Michigan students to become proficient in all high school subject areas.

The Dems say they aren’t asking for more money for schools. That wouldn’t stand a chance, said Rep. Ellen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, co-sponsor of House Bill 5269.

“We want to find out: What are the best practices in successful schools; factors that make for an excellent school. And then say, ‘This is what we want from our schools and this is what it costs,’” she said. “For all I know it could say we’re spending too much. I suspect not, but we have no idea.”

Similarly, the state Board of Education is holding public hearings to hear testimony on ideas for long-term, dramatic changes to how Michigan’s public schools are funded. The board wants to raise money for an independent adequacy study, one that would seek to find out how Michigan can spend money differently– and what amount – to get better results.

“I don't support an adequacy study as traditionally defined. … It’s a term the teachers unions and Democrats use to argue for more money,” said John Austin, the state board president. “We’ve got to better spend money we already spend to get better outcomes.”

Austin contends the state needs to consider weighting per-pupil funding based on the child’s needs. That would mean adding a percentage to per-pupil funding for every child who needs special education, is in a low-income district or needs bilingual education, for example.

“Are we meaningfully making a difference for those who are the furthest behind? That absolutely needs to be the focus of any changes we make in the system,” Austin said.

The School Equity Caucus, a group of about 200 school districts across Michigan from low-income to high-income areas, is split on how to fairly fund schools next year because the districts in the group have differing costs and revenues. But the group supports an adequacy study to figure out the state’s best long-term plan.

“School districts are unique. They have different needs. In some districts they might need one amount per pupil, and another district might need another amount,” said Gerald Peregord, executive director for the caucus.

“Not doing an adequacy study, that’s like not taking your car to the repair place because you might find out you have to put money into it.”

Criticism of studies

Gary Naeyaert, executive director for the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter and school choice advocacy group that wants equal funding for all districts, called the education adequacy movement a “big lie” and money grab.

“What do they mean by adequacy? How do you figure it out what it will cost,” Naeyaert said. “When people start talking about ‘adequate funding’ or what it should cost to educate a child, grab your wallet.”

Adequacy studies conducted in other states do often conclude more funds need to be invested in public education, and the studies themselves cost money and are sometimes used as the basis for lawsuits demanding more adequate funding, said Griffith, the financial analyst at Education Commission of the States.

Lawsuits challenging school funding have been brought in at least 45 states, with most of the recent suits focusing on funding levels for struggling student populations, including rural, disabled and low-income students, according to The Education Adequacy Project, a clinic at Yale Law School.

One influential Republican who might have been expected to support an adequacy study is Rep. Bill Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on school aid.

When Rogers was elected in 2008, he asked the question at the heart of the state’s school funding debate: How much does it cost to educate a child in Michigan? He said he is still waiting for an answer.

But Rogers said that doesn’t mean he believes the state should approve the adequacy study bill and pony up money to pay for data collection.

“Why do I want to pay for a study from outsiders when the information could be there right at the ready at the schools?” Rogers asked.

What’s at stake

The myth-busting study, “A Nation at Risk,” predicted in 1983 a “rising tide of mediocrity” in education in America. Michigan is by all accounts riding that tide – scoring among the lowest achieving states on national tests – at a time when the state’s economy and unemployment rate are clawing up from the bottom.

Michigan is not alone in receiving criticism for perceived inequities in school funding. In “For Each and Every Child: A report to the Secretary,” the Equity and Excellence Commission, chartered by Congress, concluded that education funding nationwide showed “appalling inequities.”

“America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools, and also in terms of performance,” the report concluded. “No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. Sadly, what feels so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.”

But before Michigan can have a conversation about how to fund schools, it should first determine how much money is needed boost achievement in the state, said Craig Thiel, a senior research associate with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a Lansing-based nonprofit research group.

“Is the pot large enough? Michigan has never attempted to find out what it costs to educate a general education student,” he said.

What other states are doing

Michigan is one of about a dozen states that have never conducted an “adequacy study” to determine the costs of providing adequate education, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the University of Indiana.

Critics of Michigan’s current system say the state simply takes the money available for education and asks school districts to budget accordingly. What is needed, they say, is a study that determines the components of a quality education and then prices out how much that will cost.

Outside Michigan, more states are enlisting research-driven studies to determine that cost, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Typically, the studies recommend that states increase investment in schools.

Some states – Pennsylvania and Maryland, for example – have conducted multiple studies and restructured the way they fund schools as a result, said Griffith, the analyst.

But as some states have found, an adequacy study can be a starting point for budget discussions, but no guarantee for action. “They tell you what you need to spend and won’t tell you where to get the money, because getting the money is a local/state decision,” Griffith said.

“A third of the time, it really does change the system, a third of the time it’s sort of questionable and a third of the time, it’s thrown into a drawer and nobody ever talks about it again because it was poorly done or produced a cost that was astronomical,” Griffith said.

Studies conducted by teachers unions tend to be political grenades, dismissed by opponents, he said.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he would support the state approving a study conducted by a third party. He is doubtful the legislature will approve it because it would likely say schools need more money and put the onus on lawmakers to do something about it in a state where voters don’t want to pay more taxes, he said.

“This may be self-serving, but a study would show that the unions are not the problem. As long as they don’t do the study, they can keep blaming the unions for everything,” Johnson said.

The state board of education, frustrated that rising education costs have not produced better results, is seeking funding from foundations to conduct a study in Michigan.

“We have new standards, new assessments, new [teacher] tenure reform not necessarily backed by resources,” said Austin, the board president. “It’s important we... use a process to inform us all and end up with some recommendations for change.”

Austin said Michigan needs to know how much it would cost to invest in key practices that improve achievement – better teacher training, for example. An independent adequacy study could also recommend how to better invest in helping poor and low-achieving students, he said.

“There are some very different formulas that deal with what it costs to educate particular children. That is what we need to better understand and probably do.”

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Big D
Tue, 04/29/2014 - 11:21am
The amont of money provided per student is merely one of MANY factors in "a quality education". The democrats would like to boil down ALL the factors to "how much money does it take?" Any unbiased person with an ounce of reason would recognize that--besides money-- policy, special interests, politics, and culture play heavily into the outcome, and they are not purely susceptible to spending. This makes it appear as though the democrats are focussed primarily on filling the coffers of their supporters to further cementg fealty. For those democrats to whom this does not apply, I urge you to consider what's going on.
Ken McFarlane
Tue, 04/29/2014 - 3:07pm
You can't determine the cost of educating a child until you decide how to do so. Michigan is in the forefront of the battle over this question. Anyone chosen to determine the cost should be required to reveal their stance on how education should be delivered.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 04/30/2014 - 8:48pm
All the assumptions surrounding education in Michigan are false save one, one that Socrates proclaimed a long time ago. I know one thing, I know nothing. And until the so called experts and critics really understand that they no nothing a meaningful dialogue cannot begin. Although those doing all the talking today might want ot just shut up and listen. Listen to the teachers and the students since they are the ones that do the work of learning. Learning that begins with knowing one thing, that you know nothing. You see, its not about educatiuon - its about learning something that all children know how to do. So, why won't we let them? We can start by shutting up and start listening.
Martha Toth
Thu, 05/01/2014 - 9:43am
Education has become so politicized that one cannot even advocate for more resources for needier children without being labeled "socialist." The charter movement, outside large urban areas, at least, has been driven by parents focused on what they think is best for their own children only. Schools are being resegregated by race and class as a result. The neediest students become more and more concentrated in underfunded traditional public schools. The legislature's severely term-limited members have no long-term perspective, nor the time to develop as real leaders, so they pander to whichever extremes dominate the primaries in their districts. Real leaders would actually work to understand issues in depth, and then stake out the course the facts indicate as right, regardless of political fallout. I wonder if we shall ever see political leadership again.
Sat, 05/03/2014 - 2:34pm
They can do a study and the results are just going to end up in the usual political blame game vortex with the usual suspects taking the sides you would expect them to. Ultimately it is probably just going to be a waste of time and money.
Doug D
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 3:47pm
Chastity, for several decades I had a lot to do with school financing in Michigan an have also consulted nationally. We have made many mistakes in our "reforms" over the decade, but on balance I believe each has moved the needle forward. However, I also believe that most school funding systems are at best "generational" in that the demographics of the student population change, the economics of local districts change, the accepted beliefs of what should be taught and how it should be taught change over time, and populations shift. Prop A was a tremendous step forward in reducing funding inquities, charter schools can play a role in experiments at scale in innovation. In practice however, we chose to fund charters essentialh at the average cost of all public schools, and very very few charters operate full k-12 programs. In practice this means that many charters skim lower cost K-6 and k-8 students (and in some cases even fewer grades) while getting per pupil funding at the average cost of a full K-`1 peogram without the higher costs of science labs, advanced math teachers, language teachers, band, music, drama and many others. Prop A also failed to consider the effects of nearly statewide demographic declines which left a high percentage of districts with the high probably of stagnant or declining revenues...time to change this. If you want to talk more, most of the folks at Bridge know where to find me, and you'll probably see a press conference in the next week or so on a new study I've done..exact scheduling pending some annoying medical issues.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 3:28pm
Why do people like charter schools? 1. Charter schools have not "skimmed" lower cost students - My oldest has Aspergers. He started in a private school. Didn't work. He had 9th grade in a very well rated public school. They just wanted to dumb him down. The charter school accommodated and challenged him. 2. The charter school has a band, music & art teacher. 3. The charter school has more of a demographic mix than the public school - all races and income levels. 4. Better Education at the charter school - all of the kids pass the public school 8th grade level by the time they have completed 8th grade. The public schools need to do a better job of asking why the parents like charter schools instead of using bias' to dismiss it. There are many reasons that are not acknowledged in the public vs. charter school debate.