State education proposal would add $1.4 billion to school budget

A Bridge Magazine analysis concludes that Michigan would need to pony up at least $1.4 billion more for its public schools annually to meet recommendations made in a recently released study.

And even that may not notably improve learning.

Those are among the new revelations in a watershed report that attempts to quantify the minimum amount the state must spend to provide an adequate education to Michigan students. The study had long been sought by school reform advocates and Democratic legislators, who hailed its June 29 release as lending empirical proof of what’s needed, financially at least, to boost the state’s struggling schools.

The study framed its analysis in terms of per-pupil spending, but did not offer an overall price tag for its recommendations. Bridge’s calculation of $1.4 billion is likely on the conservative side, since the study did not consider costs for special education students.

Now, a bipartisan group of education leaders inside and outside state government, most of whom originally supported the need for the study, have doubts about the efficacy of the report.

Leaders who spoke with Bridge Magazine said the study may be a lost opportunity - that rather than spurring investment in needy districts, the report likely will sit on a desk collecting dust; or worse, be used as a reason to undermine reform efforts in a state that has sunk near the bottom of national rankings in academic performance.

SLIDESHOW: The 10 school districts that would gain the most money

Leaders who previously lobbied for more education funding for schools, particularly for poor students and students of color, express exasperation at the report. They note, for instance, that the report undercuts its own argument for an increase in school funding by focusing on wealthy, largely white districts as models for what the rest of the state should emulate, and by questioning the impact that added money can have on education.

“It’s a whiff,” said one K-12 system leader who declined to be identified so he could speak bluntly. “At best, it’s one piece in a 100-piece puzzle.”

Big price tag

Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states in fourth-grade reading and math, as well as eighth-grade math. The state’s African-American students rank dead last in the nation in fourth-grade math. Less than half of the state’s students were proficient in math and English language arts in all grades tested in spring 2015 on the state M-STEP test.

Education reform advocates had pushed for years for an “adequacy” study to quantify the cost of an education that would give a child a decent shot of learning at grade level. Additional funding, as well as a change in the state’s funding formula to provide more money where it is most needed, is seen as a key to turning around Michigan’s dismal education record.

They finally got their wish in December 2014, in a horse trade to get Democratic votes for a Republican leadership-backed road funding package.

The study, by Denver-based Augenblich, Palaich and Associates, concludes that many Michigan districts are underfunded and that funding disparities between school districts are growing.

The Colorado firm came up with a recommended price tag: $8,667 a year in state and local funding for most students, $11,237 for low-income students and $12,134 for English language learners, an acknowledgement of the extra services and supports those students need to stay on track.

Michigan’s current per-pupil funding ranges from $7,511 to $8,229, with additional funding for “categorical” spending to compensate for higher costs associated with certain student groups, such as English language-learners and those in special education.

The report didn’t calculate what its recommendations would cost the state as a whole. So Bridge did, by applying the study’s recommendations to financial and student data for every traditional school district and charter school for 2014-15. If fully implemented, the recommendations would have added $1.4 billion to the K-12 budget for 2014-2015. That would represent an 11 percent increase in that year’s $12.5 billion school aid fund (which also includes higher education and retirement costs).

That $1.4 billion, and likely far higher if special education costs were included, is more than the $1.2 billion the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder agreed to spend to repair Michigan roads. For those who don’t remember, that effort took several years of political wrangling and a failed state referendum.

“You’d have to add roughly a billion dollars to the school aid fund, and there isn’t a billion there,” said Craig Ruff, special education advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder, who supported the need for an adequacy study. “And then there’s the policy question: If the state had $1 billion more, how is it best to spend it?”

If legislators accept the recommendations, it would mean huge increases for many districts, the result of across-the-board bumps in per-pupil spending for low-income students and English language-learners. Detroit Public Schools would receive a $28 million bump, a 6 percent increase to the $490 million it received in 2014-15. Grand Rapids would get $21 million additional funds; Traverse City, $7.7 million.

Many wealthy districts, according to Bridge’s analysis, already receive millions more in funding than the study considered adequate to provide a good education. By the study’s standards, for instance, Ann Arbor Public Schools was over-funded by a whopping $47 million during the 2014-2015 school year.

SLIDESHOW: The 10 school districts that are most “overfunded” under the study’s recommendations

The report’s authors declined to comment for this story, referring questions to Snyder’s office. But in the report, the authors say they do not advocate taking money away from any district, but rather increasing funds to districts below the study’s recommendations.

Big money, incremental gains

Ari Adler, spokesman for Gov. Snyder, told the Detroit Free Press shortly after the study’s release that it shows “a more equitable funding system is needed and more needs to be done to measure education funding and outcomes.”

A commission recently formed by Snyder to look at ways to improve the state’s schools has said it will review the report.

The recommendations would require a massive reform of Michigan’s education funding formula and the political will to divert more than $1 billion a year from other budget priorities.

But even if lawmakers were to come up with $1 billion-plus, the report raises a real question about how much that extra funding would help.

According to a little-notice passage in the study, an extra $1,000 in spending per pupil would increase reading and math proficiency on state tests by only 1 percent. That’s moving one-kid-in-100 from not meeting state grade-level standards to meeting those standards at a cost of $1,000 more for every student – a figure unlikely to encourage legislators to open the state’s wallet.

The model: white and affluent schools

Is it possible that more money spent in low-income districts would have a bigger impact on learning than in high-income districts? We don’t know, because the study focused on wealthy, largely white districts.

Under its $399,000 contract with the state, Denver-based Augenblich, Palaich and Associates,  was required to study only those districts that exceeded the average academic proficiency rate in every grade and subject. The result was the study focused on 54 districts in which the community median income was 55 percent higher than the state average.

Minorities were also underrepresented. Students in the districts studied were 77 percent white, compared with 67 percent statewide. African-American representation in the studied districts was one-third the state average.

That’s just one of several issues in the long-awaited report that is making it easy for critics to recommend the study be best used as a coaster.

The three biggest head-scratchers about Michigan’s new school adequacy study

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center, a Midland-based free-market think tank, said the study doesn’t show a concrete link between increased spending and increased student performance. “It definitely (provides) ammunition to make the legislature skeptical of the results,” DeGrow said.

Despite its shortcomings, supporters point to the study’s findings that it costs more to provide a good education to low-income students than their wealthier classmates.

“The study reinforced one basic finding others have made: that disinvestment in K-12 spending in real dollars over the years has impacted student learning and achievement,” said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education. “The way we spend what money we do spend must change to track the model of high-performing states. The study’s recommendations directly track the strategy of Massachusetts, and the kind of differential spending model based on needs and costs that the State Board of Education has recommended.”

Austin leads the Democrat-majority state Board of Education, but education funding decisions are made by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Brandon Dillon, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party and former state representative from Grand Rapids, helped push the study through the Legislature. He admits the report has flaws, but he said it gives state leaders a starting point (the $8,677 per pupil funding recommendation) to debate education funding.

“You can have a question about the methodology but we’re having a debate based on data,” Dillon said.

“Nobody would open a $13 billion business without a business plan and that’s essentially what we had.”

But can a state legislature reluctant to raise taxes for a road repairs and a deal to aid the Detroit Public Schools find money for more statewide K-12 spending?

“With this House (of Representatives)? No,” Dillon said. “With this House, there’s no political will.”

“I’m not stupid enough to believe this is going to be easy,” Dillon said. “But I feel optimistic.”

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David Britten
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 7:24am
Seems there's a strong effort to throw the baby out with the bath water. I strongly suggest combining the results of this study, not perfect by any means, with the work of Bruce Baker on school funding equity to come up with a real picture of Michigan's inequitable funding process, not simply shelve it. To do nothing at this point implies an overt willingness on the part of the politicians, media and citizens to continue the travesty in K-12 funding we are dealing with right now. And in the future, I recommend you not include quips from school administrators wishing to remain anonymous. They represent the lowest kind of leadership. Get someone willing to go on record and advocate for their kids. You have plenty to choose from.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 4:09pm
It seems that Mr. Britten is far more concerned with equitable funding than educational results.
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 2:00pm
I'm not sure why you think Michigan's K-12 finance system is a travesty, or what kind of system might be better in your opinion. Because Proposal A decoupled Michigan's school finance from local property taxes, and steadily increased the minimum per-pupil grant by at least twice the dollar value of raises to the best-off districts, the school finance system has become significantly more equitable. The trend is continuing even now. Aside from the "hold harmless" districts that were allowed to keep their higher local tax rates and now receive about half of the additional funds those high taxes raise, Michigan's contribution to the highest and lowest spending school districts now differs by less than $1,000 per student vs. a pre Prop A difference of more than $3,000 per student. It's true that wealthier districts more easily pass bond and sinking fund millages that let them use less of their general fund money on building and running facilities. Districts with more families in poverty get substantial increases in their Federal funding. And charter schools can't use either millages or most Federal programs to increase their budgets. If your problem is that school funding in Michigan hasn't "kept up with inflation", I'd invite you to take a look at what's happened to Michigan's average household income over the past 15 years. State spending on K-12 education has been protected above every other state function, maintaining flat or raising slightly even when state tax revenue from all sources plummeted in the early 2000's. And then there's the issue of our declining overall school-age population in Michigan that has lead to many schools having less money. Michigan lost ~50,000 people between 2000 and 2010. Many of those people were young families who moved because there were no jobs, or no jobs that paid well enough to raise a family on. Can Michigan's remaining taxpayers and businesses afford to make up for the taxes those missing people would have paid? Should schools get more money to educate fewer students? Several years ago, in pursuit of greater equity, the state legislature decided to move a large fraction of the money school districts owe to the teacher pension fund out of the per-pupil Foundation Allowance and to pay that bill directly to the fund. That's because charter schools are paid based on the per-pupil Foundation Allowance, and would have otherwise received a windfall because charter schools are not required to participate in that very generous pension plan. I really don't see what's so unfair about any aspect of this system, other than that Michigan pays top dollar for sub-par educational results. This overspending is quite unfair to Michigan taxpayers, both individual and busineses.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 7:55am
So ... if you had the money what specifically would you do with it? What do you have that shows that these measures are effective? Why are there so many schools nationally that spend far in excess of these numbers without the success that this study promises? Exactly what are the specific deficiencies that this study is promising to solve with this extra money?
Steven Smewing
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:22am
I would love to be on this school improvement committee. It is so frustrating to know that there is a wealth of data already available, dutifully collected, containing almost all one would need to know to create an action plan, and it is never even looked at or referenced. I have sent Senator Horn a brief framework in which you leverage the existing levels of the entire school system in the state. Using this framework to then distribute the data in a form that is plain and sets a course of at the very least, of review by the school. It is imperative to not resort to any blanket plan that only uses general terms such as demographics. Use the decades of data that is already collected. I have a data mind and could within 1 hour show how data needs to drive action. It is done in the proper business like cycle, analyze, plan, act. Repeat this at regular intervals. The other thing that just screams for attention is so easy, as they call it low hanging fruit. Michigan does not have special or unique education problems. They also do not need special or one off solutions. There are 39 other states doing a better job that Michigan at educating its children. They are not hiding, the information is freely available. Yet, nothing in this front is done. And lastly, the biggest one of them all. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO OR FIX IT ALL AT ONCE. Stop trying to fix the whole problem with one big package of moves. Refer to my data assessment model. It is a model in which you look for clear action points, make a plan, put it out and re-analyze as you go. You can go to as low a level as how much each district is spending on toilet paper and correcting the ones who are way of the the mean data on it. In each school there is already data on which instructors are improving student outcomes and which are not. Use that data to start. If the need to spend money is great that you must, then retrain the instructors who have demonstrated low outcomes. If that fails then replace that instructor as ineffectual. It drives me nuts when there is an obvious problem, data to look at and then it is not and you have a room full of people completely in the dark throwing darts trying to fix it.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:40am
I would be more apt to support this if the problem was described first, the action needed to fix the problem, and lastly, the resources required to fix the problem. You could spend $1.4 Billion, or ten times $1.4 Billion, and in all probability, the end result would be little different than if you did nothing. There are a lot of really smart kids in some districts, and some really smart kids in a lot of the districts. What are the districts doing to produce those kids? Or maybe it is not that the districts are doing anything, but rather, their parents are doing something to encourage learning. In my mind, we have wasted a lot of money on yet another study that will produce nothing.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 6:25pm
Rich says, "There are a lot of really smart kids in some districts, and some really smart kids in a lot of the districts. What are the districts doing to produce those kids?" Has he considered the possibility that the parents are producing those kids? It is unfashionable to say so when the default assumption today is that all are equally talented, but it is the case that fifty percent of the variation in intelligence is heritable. That goes a long way to explain both the superior performance of some districts and the higher incomes of those districts. Of course, the common assumption is that the higher incomes account for the superior performances. A problem that can be solved with the transfer of resources from wealthier districts to poorer ones. There is another factor that plays a significant role in educational success. A recent Morning Edition on NPR explored the effect of non-cognitive skills. Barbara Wolfe and Jason Fletcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found children from lower income families have lower non-cognitive skills than children from richer families. Economist Barbara Wulf "asked if income disparities might also be linked to disparities in what are sometimes called non-cognitive skills. Many researchers think that it's these skills that undergird not just academic performance in school but a host of other abilities later in life, including in the workplace." And "Economists Wulf and Fletcher analyzed data from a national survey that tracked children from kindergarten through the fifth grade. The survey data allowed the researchers to track the effects of family income on what parents and teachers were reporting about these children as they went through elementary school. The researchers find there's a very strong correlation between family income and these non-cognitive skills. In other words, when it comes to being cooperative or dealing with conflict productively, children from wealthier families on average seem to have more of these skills than children from poorer families." Thus, money alone will not resolve the disparities in our educational results.
Bob Short
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:46am
We've been misled and lied to for years! Why should we believe this would change. Ex: Lottery,substitutional instead of supplemental as we were lead to believe. Why is some of the gas tax used for educational. Sorry, but I find it hard to believe this money would go where they tell you it will go. They always find some way to divert it to their own projects!
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:59am
Steven I agree with many of his comments and understand that at least in our community it is easier to spend then it is to save. It appears to me when speaking at public comment at a school board meetings about the issues of waste falls on deaf ears. Some of the board members were playing with their laptops while teachers and my self were speaking. This is not only disrespectful but is much like a student texting on his phone while a teacher is giving a presentation. I will not give up but I would be very appreciate of the board members paying attention to the taxpayers and teachers attempting to provide the this important service to our communities and country. Dale Westrick
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 4:40pm
Mr. French appears to believe that money is the reason students learn. He doesn’t seem to consider that the student has a role/responsibilities in their learning process. He discounts that mindset /expectations/desire/encouragement has noticeable impact on learning successful. When Mr. French states “ …if you want to know how much it costs to educate successful students, look at spending in successful schools [that are predominately ‘white’].”, “…and 37 percent are Asian.”, he fails to understand that financial success is a byproduct of learning, of knowledge and skills, of studying. He fails to appreciate that those who have had academic success actively support academic success in their child and in their community. Mr. French by measuring learning success by money and ethnicity he contributes to the building of psychological/cultural barriers to engaging the student, engaging their families and their support micro cultures, and engaging the communities in student learning. It is easier to report numbers that others have generated, but numbers do not assure that they are an accurate measure of what is important. If Mr. French were trying to understand how academic success is achieved he should start by interviewing those who have been successful, asking them why and how they succeeded, what were the barriers they had to overcome, how did they get their desire to learn/study? I wonder if Mr. French ever looked at his learning experiences, if in his classrooms [where spending was equal] whether there were kids that were very successful, those that failed, and those in between. I wonder if he found the individual and their interest and effort in learning was the difference in success or failure. Could it be this preoccupation with money is preventing people from realizing that learning is an individual’s process of personal effort, which is something money can’t buy?
David Zeman
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 1:40pm
Duane, You realize that Ron French is the reporter on this issue we're talking about, not the policymaker, right? Ron is not putting forth the recommendations on budget targets, nor is he (or Bridge) suggesting that throwing a certain amount of money at education will by itself reverse academic trends in our state. Frankly, for all the report's apparent faults, I would guess the consultants who put together this adequacy study would not make such a claim, either. This study was merely an attempt to determine how much money is necessary to help ensure that all public school children in Michigan, traditional and charter, have access to a decent education. That was their charge. It does not ignore the fact, and Ron and Bridge do not ignore the fact, that many other factors are also of course critical to classroom success. David Zeman Bridge Editor
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 10:01pm
Mr. Zeman, The fact that you charged Mr. French to fins a dollar number “necessary to help ensure that all public school children … access to a decent education.” That surely does sound like recommending a budget target. It also leaves me the impression about where you [Bridge] place the student, their personal efforts, the family support and encouragement, etc. in achieving academic success. I do apologize to Mr. French for my remarks about his reporting as it seems that how he was charged made it your article along with how it was edited. As an editor I have to believe you know the questions a reporter asks is critical to an article, and you would realize how information is presented and what is omitted can be a significant factor in how a reader interprets the topic of an article. It seems that normally additional information is included in an article, to help the reader understand a topic. You emphasis on being the assigning editor makes better sense on the nature of the article. I was surprised that with Mr. French’s work, such as the Marshal merger, that he would leave the reader with the impression that it is only money that makes academic success. By only showing a correlation of money and school district success he creates the impression that if a certain amount of money is spent per student the children will be academically successful. He also by omission discounts the efforts of the individual students and those who support them. With your clarification on how the article was charged clarifies this. My response to the article was due to it not providing any information aside from the financial support in those 54 districts leaving a reader to believe that it is simply about someone writing a big enough check, that encourages people create false expectations. Having lived for a time in one of those 54 districts, I found that it was the students, their support [families], expectations [academic success], and individual effort [studying] that created the success in that district. Money didn’t change the quality of learning it was simply an extension of their support. When Mr. French failed to mention the academic success [degrees held by those in the districts] he further open the reader to misinterpretation. Those who have had academic success, had its importance validate reinforces their greater engagement in learning, in supporting learning, in creating a model of success based on learning. Money is an easy thing to overweight, especially if you are struggling to manage what you have, but such overweighting can undermine what is truly necessary to achieve academic success. That is still my response to the article, but it may have been unfair to place that on Mr. French. For a number of years we lived in a district that the highest expectation for the students was ‘graduation’ from 8th grade, and taxed accordingly. We moved to one of the 54 districts when our children were in high school [they did well enough to enroll/graduate from UofM and MSU with BA/MBA & BS Engineering degrees respectively]. A descriptor one of my daughter’s had about the differences in the schools, “At _ _ _ High I went to school with the kids I went to college with.” The quality of teaching and the schools was not an issue; it was the students and their expectations. How you define a ‘decent education’ might tell a lot about the view you/Bridge has on learning. It would be interesting to allow Mr. French to do an article on how and why students succeed using the approach [talking to students] he did on the Marshal article.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 7:36am
Balderdash! Relying on uniform targets for proficiency, standardized test scores and measures of academic retention to assess learning growth and funding needs? A entirely wrong assumption to use as a starting point/decision foundation. Formulaic allocation of dollars per head driven by Carnegie Unit assumptions about learning - idiocy of the first order. Worked when the goal was a sixth grade education and transition from agricultural to industrial but not today. Top down budgeting and decision making by grossly uninformed pols, pundits and academic professionals profoundly separates the money from the real purpose - children and their teachers learning. Education leadership stuck in an industrial age mindset in the information age. Solutions: Abandon the current omnibus measures of "performance" or "growth". They are irrelevant. Formative and summative assessments designed and administered by teachers in classroom. Pols, pundits and academic professionals use statistical tools (i.e. process control - see Deming) to inform the process, not to punish. Learning is a matter best left to the relationship between teacher and student. Variation and diversity are NORMAL. Funding determined at the individual needs level in the classroom by teachers with aggregated classroom amounts determining individual building budgets (relates dollars to context). Pols, pundits and academic professionals play a supportive role pulling together classroom numbers into a state budget and procuring the necessary revenues to support learning (not punitive testing or prescriptive targets for performance) Evaluation conducted at building level using simple tools such as fifteen minute per day, every day, reflection by supervisory personnel (principals, assistant principals, department heads), sharing of daily reflections with those reflected upon, quarterly reviews and adjustment based on observations, annual summations agreed upon by all involved. It does not cost a lot of money, if any, to recognize that learning is the goal, not test scores or compliance with externally applied target values. Recognize and trust the people that actually do the work, teachers and their students, and let them do it. Stop interfering with the workers and support them ion what they do. It ain't rocket science. Time required - at least twelve years for the K-12 cycle. Resources - common sense. Education of all . . . required. It will probably save money over time and give real meaning to the work of all involved. Start with one building and be patient, the specific context will require continual improvements along the way, never ending continual improvements best left to the people that do the work, every day!
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 9:30am
Michigan will continue to rank low in education results because they want to fund charters and not regulate them. It doesn't matter how much the state spends on education. The real work happens in the classroom and right now teachers in Michigan feel forced to do the Standardized Testing Dance so the state can apply for more federal funding. I want to see a study done on what percent of education funding goes to the testing companies.
Phil L.
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 10:47am
What evidence does Mr. Dillon offer to support his optimism?