New report shows Michigan massively underfunding education and the scandalous impact of that is all around us


Last year, as part of the deal over road funding that led to Proposal 1 on the May 2015 ballot, a school financing report was commissioned by the state to determine what it takes to educate a child in Michigan. This week, that report was released and it shows, as anyone who is paying attention to education in our state had already figured out, Michigan is woefully underfunding education.

Here are some of the “highlights” (lowlights?) drawn from reporting by the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News:

  • There is significantly more variation in per-pupil revenues and expenditures across districts than is desirable for an equitable school finance system.
  • Michigan needs to spend 30% more per student for at-risk students and 40% more per student for students struggling to learn English.
  • Successful districts spend more educating students and tend to rely more on local revenue.
  • State government needs to increase the school foundation allowance and provide supplementary state aid to districts with low property values or stratifying per-pupil increases to close the gap.

The study found that an optimum funding level is $8,667 per student. The range in Michigan right now is from $7,511 to $8,229. However, some districts spend considerably more which helps improve their outcomes. That’s a gap of between $438 and $1,156 statewide.

These findings come too late to impact the school funding legislation signed into law this week by Gov. Snyder. The new legislation increases state funding by only $60 to $120. “We’re very disappointed that it didn’t come out prior to the signing of the budget,” Democratic State Representative Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor told The Detroit News, “because then we could have utilized it to make some very significant changes it clearly shows need to be made.”

The new funding package also includes $2.5 million for private schools, which is sure to be fought in the courts. Michigan voters have repeatedly turned down proposals to give state tax dollars to private schools and the new legislation appears to be an end run around the constitution which forbids it. Rather than follow the constitution, Gov. Snyder decided to take his chances in court. “With respect to the non-public piece of this bill, it’s to address mandates put on by the state,” he said. “There are some potential legal issues associated with that … but I thought it was appropriate to move ahead and then address the legal question.

Gov. Snyder also signed legislation that aimed at resolving the intractable problems with funding schools in Detroit. This new plan is widely believed to be completely inadequate in terms of the amount of money is being earmarked for the struggling district and has the added “bonus” of allowing for uncertified teachers to teach Detroit students, something allowed in no other district in the state. On top of that, it has only $25 million dedicated to upgrading the district’s tragically dilapidated buildings, an amount that seems more of an insult than an effort to ensure Detroit kids get to go to school in buildings that are as safe and hospitable to learning as kids anywhere else in the state.

Meanwhile, a CEO has finally been appointed by the Snyder administration to take over East Detroit Public Schools. As I have written about before, “CEO” is the new “Emergency Manager” when it comes to the state taking over local school districts. And, as Nancy Kaffer points out so eloquently in her piece in the Detroit Free Press, there’s little in our state’s history to give any of us confidence that it will work:

Emergency managers appointed by Snyder have a decidedly mixed track record. Detroit weathered its historic municipal bankruptcy under the guidance of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, but the City of Flint has had four emergency managers — and under their oversight, the city’s water supply was contaminated with lead, a neurotoxin with serious implications for children’s health and development. It’s even harder to find a success story in school districts that the state has taken over — Detroit Public Schools, under state oversight for most of this century, were delivered the coup de grace earlier this month by the state Legislature; DPS will be replaced by a new, debt-free, district.

Appointing a CEO, with responsibility for just four of the district’s schools and no clearly defined relationship to the district’s superintendent and elected school board, seems designed to complicate, not simplify, the district’s struggles.

The East Detroit School District is fighting the move in court but that hasn’t dissuaded Gov. Snyder’s administration with moving ahead anyway.

Michigan was once national leader in education. Now we are the poster child for what happens when corporatists are allowed to set education policy. We’re now the national example of how NOT to educate children as a new piece in the New York Times makes clear:

Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.

Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.

This chaos is being manifested as I write this with three charter schools in Detroit announcing this week that they are closing. Why? In part it’s because the “competition” so often touted by corporatist education reform types has them cannibalizing each other’s students. That same cannibalization is happening with our public schools, as well, of course. And that’s taking a huge toll on them.

But when there are tax dollars to be siphoned off into the coffers of the education corporations, that’s of little concern to the Republicans who currently run our state. It’s just one more example of Republicans claiming government doesn’t work and then working their asses off to prove it.

UPDATE: In case you thought everything was hunky dory in Benton Harbor, think again. The school district there is getting its fourth emergency loan from the state in four years, this time for $4.4 million so the teachers there won’t have to work for free.