Education leaders call for funding that protects Michigan's vulnerable students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan's vulnerable students, especially low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities, should be shielded from future state budget cuts, a group of education advocates said on Tuesday.

The Education Trust-Midwest and business, civil rights and civic leaders launched a  campaign, Opportunity for All, to call on state leaders to invest in Michigan’s students and adopt a system of fairer education funding, as lawmakers grapple with projected shortfalls for the 2020-21 school year.

Based on budget modeling, Education Trust-Midwest officials say they examined the impact of Michigan’s approach to budget reductions by reviewing funding data for every district statewide.

The analysis, which assumes an average of $470 per pupil cut, provides four funding options to shield lower-funded districts and high-need students. Such systems would mean a larger funding cut to the wealthiest school districts, according to Education Trust-Midwest modeling.

The models include:

►A "reduced cut" that reduces the amount cut for districts at the lowest funding levels and for vulnerable students in higher funded districts. For the wealthiest districts, the cut would be $584, the poorest $431.

►A "closing the gap" system in which districts receive a lower cut for every student with additional needs. For the wealthiest districts, the cut would be $698, the poorest $297.

►A system in which no cuts are allowed to vulnerable student groups. For the wealthiest districts, the cut would be $764, the poorest $147.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the nonpartisan Education Trust-Midwest, said the models contrast with Michigan’s standard approach to budget cuts, which imposes uniform across-the-board cuts, regardless of students’ or communities’ level of poverty or needs.

"Michigan needs to take a hard look at its longstanding systemic injustices and choose to invest in public education, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the opportunity divide among Michigan’s students," Arellano said.

"The time to address these inequities is now. But if budget cuts are necessary, Michigan’s leaders should provide more support for high-need students that have been underserved for decades. We are calling on state leaders to create Opportunity for All."

Amber Arellano, Executive Director, The Education Trust-Midwest, gives opening remarks before the start of the conference.

The strategies include equitable approaches to budget reductions that serve as alternatives to Michigan’s standard approach to budget cuts and more transparency and accountability for the state investment, said Mike Jandernoa, a campaign member and the founder and chairman of 42 North Partners.

“Michigan needs a skilled workforce to ensure a strong, prosperous economy, and that means we need to give every student equal access to opportunities for a successful future,” Jandernoa said. "Our state’s leaders must commit to an equitable education funding system that helps close the gaps between Michigan’s wealthy and poor districts and supports our most vulnerable children."

Specifically, the group called for prioritizing investment in public education over other areas of the budget, including by reversing decisions to divert money from the School Aid Fund.  

It also wants the state to ensure transparency and accountability by making a commitment to have dollars reach the children for whom they are intended, campaign leaders said.

This includes requiring districts to spend 75% of at-risk funding and English-learner funding at a school where qualifying students attend beginning in the 2022-23 school year, establishing searchable databases and mandating timely public reporting on district financial decisions and investments. 

Jametta Lilly of the Detroit Parent Network said state policies, funding and mindset have consistently underfunded and underdeveloped the essential tools and beliefs that help youth thrive.

"Facing hard choices and economic uncertainty, we are calling on legislators to embrace and protect historically vulnerable populations," Lilly said.