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A new school finance study shows Michigan is underfunding its schools, and additional dollars should be invested in students with the greatest needs, including those who are low-income, have a limited grasp of English or require special education.
The study was released Wednesday by the School Finance Research Collaborative, an organization representing educators, foundations and members of the business community.
Speaking at a news conference in Grand Rapids, members of the collaborative characterized Michigan’s current school funding formula as “broken,” and urged members of the state Legislature to revamp how education is financed. They advocated for an approach that focuses more deeply on the different needs of various student groups.
“Now is the time that our state lawmakers unite in a bipartisan, bicameral approach to fundamentally change the way we fund education to make sure we are meeting the needs of all students,” said Wendy Falb, president of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education.
Michigan primarily funds its schools using a per-pupil funding formula that provides a base amount for each student, ranging from $7,631 to $8,289 depending on the school district. Separate pots of money – known as categorical funding – are set aside for various student groups, such as low-income students deemed academically at-risk.
But the study released Wednesday shows the base cost of educating a student at a large district is $9,590, a figure that does not include capital costs, food service or transportation. The price rises for smaller districts with fewer students, and additional funding is recommended for students who live in poverty, require special education services and whose primary language is not English.
Members of the task force praised recent state budgets, which have increased funding for at-risk students, students who are learning to speak English, and high schoolers, whose classes often cost more to provide because of expenses such as technology and lab equipment. But they said more work is needed to increase funding and provide it in a more targeted way.
Another recommendation: Fund traditional public schools and charter schools at the same level.
Charters currently receive base funding of $7,631, and, under state law, their funding may not exceed the base per-pupil funding of the school district they’re located within. That means some charters get less per-pupil funding than a nearby traditional public school.
Associations representing traditional public school districts have said their member districts have higher expenses than charters, such as transportation and retirement costs associated with the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, or MPSERS. Most charter schools are not members of the MPSERS system.
But one assistant superintendent, speaking Wednesday, said, “I just think we just have to set some of those things aside.”
“Those needs in the charter schools are similar to needs in traditional schools,” said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District.
Koehler did, however, point out that “different cost burdens” exist between traditional public schools and charters. He noted that the report recommends that schools that provide transportation be provided with $973 per student to fund the expense.
He also said further study is needed on capital costs, such as building repairs and construction projects. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, don’t have the ability to ask voters to approve a property tax millage to fund such expenses.
Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice said improving student performance isn’t “all about money,” but adequate resources do play a role in ensuring that all students can meet state content standards.
“Simply adding more money does not necessarily improve student achievement,” he said. “But if you add money in research-based areas, you are going to drive higher student achievement, and that’s what this study is about.”
Koehler acknowledged the broad scope of the new report, and said he doesn’t expect the state lawmakers to implement the changes overnight. But he said he’s hopeful it will lead to a more informed conversation surrounding school funding.
“We know that it’s a little late in the game to change what the governor is going to recommend in a couple weeks,” Koehler said, in reference to Gov. Rick Snyder’s upcoming FY 2019 budget proposal. “But we can influence the discussion and we hope that we have some serious dialogue about what it really takes.”
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