Michigan plan: Give more state school aid to students with more needs

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Novi — Proof that some students cost more to educate is all around Novi Community Schools.

It's in the high school's power technology lab, where students in a career technical education program use expensive machines and equipment to cut, weld and craft aluminum into go-carts to prepare for jobs after graduation.

It's in a classroom where four special education teachers work alongside eight special education students with multiple impairments as they work on life skills.

Students Justin Ngo, left, and Alex Seba, assemble a go-kart at Novi High’s power technology lab.

It's in elementary schools where math and reading interventionists are working with low-income children who need more support to reach their academic potential.

"Students cost different amounts of money," Novi schools superintendent Steve Matthews said. "They are not all the same. Recognizing that would help us meet the needs of all students."

Yet Michigan doesn't recognize the individual needs of students when it comes to funding K-12 schools. It uses a one-size-fits-all strategy in the per-pupil foundation allowance formula it uses to send money to local districts to pay for bills.

Smaller appropriations are provided to districts for some special groups of children, including English language learners and at-risk kids, but educators say money is not cemented into the per-pupil formula and can be stripped out or reduced every year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and educators across Michigan are calling for the state to switch to a "weighted-funding formula" that builds off the foundation allowance and includes additional funding per student for those with more costly education needs.

Whitmer's proposal calls for:

  • $102 million to increase support for economically disadvantaged, academically at-risk students, which would provide an estimated $894 per eligible pupil.
  • $50 million for career and technical education students, which would provide an estimated $487 per eligible student.
  • $120 million to increase state reimbursement for special education services, which is an increase of four percentage points over the current level of 28%.

Weighted-funding or student-centered funding for K-12 schools is a way for children with greater needs to get greater educational support and opportunities in school, State Budget director Chris Kolb said.

Kolb, who said he was a special education student in Ann Arbor Public Schools and benefited from the extra help he received there, said the changes in funding would be the largest increase in school operating funds in a generation.

"There has been an argument you should give one amount for every student and that weighted is saying some kids are worth more than others," Kolb said. "That is not what we are saying. Having that opportunity for success is recognizing some students have greater needs. This formula allows schools to do this."

Of Michigan's 1.5 million K-12 students, more than half — 760,219 — are considered economically disadvantaged. About 13%, or 199,620, are special education students, and about 113,000 are enrolled in one or more career or technical courses.

Emily Pringle, left, Luis Acosta, and Olivia Hudson build a go-kart in the power technology lab at Novi High. The career technical education program uses expensive machines and equipment prepare students for jobs.

But Craig Thiel, research director for the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Whitmer's proposal is not a "true" weighted funding system and is not much different than how schools and students are funded today.

"We have moved some money around in areas of the budget and called it a weighted student formula, but the key behind the weighted student formula is to get the 'base cost' right and then everything builds off the base cost," Thiel said.

Michigan uses a foundation allowance — a rate between $7,781 to $8,409 per pupil — which includes money for districts to pay for transportation, retirement and other costs not in the classroom.

Thiel said the base cost is what it would take to get a general education student to proficiency level from K-12 — with no additional supports.

Getting to a base formula would require the state to remove costs outside the classroom, Thiel said, and focus on instructional costs to determine funding.

"My thinking is the first order of business is to 'rebase' base funding," Thiel said. "If the base number isn’t right, then applying a premium means you are adding money that is unnecessary."

In the area of special education, districts are required by law to provide special education services, so costs not covered from dedicated revenue sources must be paid from the district’s general operating budget.

State budget officials said by increasing the reimbursement level, districts can provide more intervention and support staff for special education students while freeing up school dollars to improve education for all students.

Thiel said the proposed budget increase for special education is not really an increase.

Instead, the money will be used to offset what districts currently spend from their general funds to pay for special education, Thiel said.

"It would free up existing funding schools receive for general education students," Thiel said. "Dedicated federal and state funding has never been sufficient to cover the full costs of services."

In 2018, the School Finance Research Collaborative completed a school adequacy study that determined the true cost of educating all students. The study’s main finding is that the base per-pupil cost to educate a general education K-12 student in Michigan is $9,590, not including transportation, food service or capital costs.

Ron Koehler, an assistant superintendent for the Kent ISD and chair of public engagement for the School Finance Research Collaborative, said the governor's proposal is a good first start with plenty of work ahead.

"These first investments are very important," Koehler said. "She is setting targets for continued investments going forward and we want to work with her to get the biggest bang for our buck to get the additional investments for students."

A budget plan introduced last month by a Senate K-12 and Education Appropriations Subcommittee did not include any "weighted funding model" but did include a $30 million appropriation for special education and $38 million appropriation for at-risk students.

The House education subcommittee is expected to introduce a budget plan this week.

Some state educators pushed back, calling the Senate plan stuck in the past.

“Research has consistently shown that Michigan’s school funding formula is broken and fails to meet the real needs of our students," said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools and vice president of The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

The alliance said it welcomed alternative proposals from the Legislature and would offer its support as long as those proposals met the same principles as the governor's.

“Overhauling our state’s school funding formula is a long overdue, difficult process, but I don’t think that any of these senators were sent to the Capitol to take the easy way out,” Greathead said.

Larry Scavo, a certified CTE teacher in Novi schools (not pictured), said students go through a lot of materials, especially steel.

Asked last week why the proposed budget lacked a weighted-funding model, state Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who chairs the School Aid budget subcommittee, said the Senate recognizes that other students have certain challenges and the proposal does include some extra money for at-risk and special education students.

But that recognizing those differences, Schmidt said, can result in a greater gap in funding between what students receive downstate and what students receive "up north."

"So first goal is make sure that all districts have that similar starting, that minimum foundation, then going forward and recognizing some of the other differences," Schmidt said. "We did acknowledge that. I think that's where the governor and the Senate do come together. It's just that we're dealing in realistic numbers."

Ben DeGrow, the Mackinac Center's director of education policy, said certain students bring greater needs and adding a state formula that recognizes that can be a good thing.

"But the devil is in the details," DeGrow said. "Attaching more money to students rather than a bureaucratic institution is a good thing, as long as the money follows the student where they are served and we can follow them."

DeGrow said if approved, it would benefit charter and cyber schools, which serve a higher rate — about 70%  — of free and reduced lunch students or at-risk students, than traditional schools, which is around 45-50%.

"I think it's one of the most interesting aspects of the debate," he said.

Distributing school dollars based on the needs of students is a concept gaining in momentum across the country, according to education researchers.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and a research associate professor at Georgetown University, said a growing number of states are moving toward a student-based approach for funding that provides for students living in poverty or those who are English language learners.

Some 25 large urban districts, including Denver and Boston, are already using weighted-student formulas for spending their state and local dollars, Roza said.

Some states that are using a "weighted" formula are attaching rules to the money, telling districts: "Here is your money. I'm holding you accountable," Roza said.

"Districts are trying to tighten the link between money and outcomes," Roza said of districts already using student-based funding. "People don’t understand what things costs. A $90,000 librarian hire can get more kids to read. It forces a rationalization of the money."

Larry Scavo, a certified CTE teacher in Novi schools, says the equipment in his lab —welding machines and saws — is expensive and needs replacing. Students go through a lot of materials, especially steel, he said.

"You start adding up all the equipment, the price of teaching anything industrial is expensive," Scavo said. "But you have to if you want kids to explore it."

If the state increased funding for CTE programs per pupil, Scavo said he knows exactly what he could buy.

"I could have more equipment. We have one bandsaw that we share among 26 kids. I would buy some more of those," Scavo said.


Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.