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Seeking Answers to Funding Questions
Linda Mah
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Seeking Answers to Funding Questions

New Study to Examine School Funding

By Dr. Michael Rice

Superintendent, Kalamazoo Public Schools

How much does it cost to reasonably fund the education of a student from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade?

This simple question is surprisingly complicated. Indeed, it has been the subject of studies in numerous states over the last three decades. Until recently, however, Michigan had never attempted to answer this fundamental question.

That changed in December 2014, when Michigan state legislators contracted for a study to address this question. The study—which used one of four accepted research methods for answering the question— was published in the summer of 2016.

In a nutshell, the study suggested what many of us have argued for years: that Michigan public education is underfunded, to the detriment of the state’s 1.5 million public schoolchildren. Among the research findings were the following:

• T h e per pupil foundation allowance — the base revenue amount per student in the state — was underfunded by approximately $1,000 per student.

• Many students cost more than others. For example, the study noted that English language learners cost roughly 40 percent more on average than general education students and should generate this percentage additionally over the base for their education. It also determined that poor students cost approximately 30 percent more on average than their middle-class peers and should generate this percentage more over the base for their education.

• While it acknowledged that special needs students cost more to educate on average than non-special needs students, it noted that the technical challenges with Michigan data did not permit a firm estimate of the additional costs for special needs students.

When it came out, state officials initially criticized and then largely ignored this first study. While it is true that the study had its limitations, it is also true that it was a good beginning at answering the important question of adequate funding.

A new group — the School Finance Research Collaborative — a group of business leaders and educators — has recently contracted for a new study on the same question. This study, broader than the first, uses two of the other three research methods to address the question of adequacy of school funding for public school students.

For many years, Michigan public education was well funded compared to other states in the country. Over the last two decades, however, Michigan’s poverty has increased, its funding for public education relative to other states and to inflation has plummeted, and its student achievement relative to other states has declined as well. Funding and school performance are related to one another.

One way of looking at the funding challenges in recent years is simply to look at the adverse effect of inflation relative to state aid. Take KPS for example. When one compares inflation over the last 12 years to state per pupil foundation allowance growth, KPS has lost approximately 20 percent of the buying power of its state per pupil foundation allowance. That’s a profound cut over the last 12 years. Other districts have been significantly harmed as well.

Michigan is poorer than it was 17 years ago at the turn of the century. For years, at risk funding in the state, the funding that was supposed to address the additional costs of educating poor children in the state, was fixed at $309 million statewide. In 2015, the governor recommended a $100 million increase statewide in this amount, and the legislature approved $70 million. This year, the governor recommended a $150 million increase statewide, and the legislature approved $120 million. While these increases don’t begin to fully address the added costs of educating poor children, they begin to recognize and partially address the state’s historic underfunding of our children in poverty.

For many years, the Kalamazoo Public Schools Board of Education and the KPS administration have lobbied the state legislature for more state funding for public schools. Since the advent of Proposal A in 1994, the vast majority of school funding comes from the state. If education funding in the state is to improve, it must be the state that improves it, given our state school finance system post Proposal A.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve on the Steering and Technical Committee for the School Finance Research Collaborative. I appreciate the fact that the collaborative is funding a study that is due to be finished and published mid-winter. I appreciate the fact that, while no one knows what the study in process will ultimately reveal, those of us who have had the opportunity to work in other states—and particularly in states that fund public education better than Michigan— know that supports that are taken for granted in other states are more rarely seen here.

We can do better in Michigan. Better funding for students and staff is a part of what is needed to make us a Top 10 education state over the next 10 years.

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