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"Adequacy" study finds Michigan education funding inadequate, inequitable

Jun 29, 2016

A long-awaited, state-sponsored study has put a minimum price tag on what it takes to educate the average Michigan public school student.

The Michigan Education Finance Study set out to answer a simple question: How much money does it take to educate a student that’s proficient by state standards, every year?

Finding the answer, it turns out, is complicated.

But the research team from Denver-based Augenblich, Palaich and Associates took as a model 54 Michigan school districts it deemed “notably successful,” saying those districts offer “the best indicator of what it might take for ALL districts to succeed at a base level.”

Their average total base costs? $8,667 per student, per year.

Currently, most Michigan school districts get between $7300 and $8000 in state per-pupil funding every year, though a few districts get significantly more.

But the study goes further, suggesting that “at-risk” students require at least 30% more money, while English language learners need 40% more.

In addition to “costing out” the price of an adequate education, the study also examined equity in school financing—and found room for concern.

The researchers found that overall, Michigan’s school finance system is “moderately inequitable” when it comes to allocating resources across districts.

However, when it comes to providing resources to the highest-need schools, it fares notably worse. “The state may be falling short in providing additional resources for serving special needs populations,” the report notes.

And the trend is toward more inequity: “The state should be concerned that many of the measures…have trended up slightly in recent years, suggesting that the school finance system may get less equitable over time.”

The study recommends that “Michigan work to create a more equitable funding system,” in part by raising the base foundation allowance to the meet recommended standards, and also create a system that better tracks special education expenditures from all sources.

Reaction to the study, commissioned by the state legislature and more than 8 months in the making, was swift.

Ben DeGrow, education policy analyst at the conservative Mackinac Policy Center, says the group behind the study “has always found education spending wasn’t enough, the conclusion that Michigan’s education funding is inadequate should come as no surprise.”

DeGrow noted that 19 so-called “exemplary districts” managed to meet the report’s “notably successful” standard, while spending about 10% less than the recommended $8,667 per pupil.

“The state can spend more on education, but it won’t help students unless that money is spent in effective ways,” DeGrow said.

The report acknowledged this, but said the number of high-performing, lower-cost districts is so small, they likely “would not accurately reflect what it might take for all districts to be able to meet standards… These districts tended to be very low need and tended to have low base spending amounts.”

Representatives of Michigan’s teachers’ unions, however, called the results a wake-up call.

“The adequacy study released today proves what many of us in public education have been saying for years: Michigan’s education funding is inadequate, and it’s harming student performance,” said Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association. “It is not a coincidence that the academically high-performing districts are also the highest-funded districts in the state.”

Cook noted that almost 90% of Michigan districts are funded below the “notably successful threshold.”

The unions and other progressive groups encouraged state lawmakers to take the report's findings to heart. However, the report is non-binding--though the legislature and Gov. Snyder commissioned it, they do not have to do anything with the findings.