Michigan lags other states in funding for vulnerable K-12 students, study says

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A study released Thursday by the Education Trust-Midwest says Michigan is drastically underfunding its most vulnerable students, including students from low-income backgrounds and others hit hardest by the pandemic, compared to other states with comparable student-based funding approaches.

The report, "Engine of Inequality: Michigan’s Education System," says Michigan provides a smaller investment in English language learners, students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities compared to other states.

According to the report, Michigan has only provided about 9% more funding to most low-income students in recent budget years compared to leading state Massachusetts, which will provide up to about 105% more funding for low-income students in the highest poverty districts after new policies are fully phased in.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, gives opening remarks before the start of a 2019 education conference at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Arellano said Michigan is underfunding vulnerable groups of students at devastatingly low levels, according to a new study released on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

Amber Arellano, Education Trust-Midwest executive director, said Michigan is underfunding vulnerable groups of students at devastatingly low levels.

"Our public education system is acting as an engine of inequality rather than the engine of opportunity that all Michigan students deserve," Arellano said. "We can change that...Funding reforms must be coupled with far greater systems of transparency and fiscal accountability, though. And the federal stimulus dollars give Michigan the opportunity to build those transparency systems right now."

A new statewide coalition of civil rights, business and education leaders is calling on Michigan's political leadership to create a new equitable system for funding K-12 education that serves the needs of its most vulnerable students.

Announcing its formation on Thursday, the Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity wants the state's funding system overhauled to better serve Michigan's most underserved students, including Black and Latino students, English language learners, students with disabilities and students from low-income backgrounds.

Alice Thompson, a partnership member and chair of the education committee for the NAACP Detroit branch, said creating a more equitable public school system in Michigan that serves the needs of all students is a fundamental necessity for putting the state on a solid path to becoming one of the top 10 education states.

"State leaders must create an equitable educational system, including funding equity now. That will move our state closer to improving the success of our most underserved students in high-need and high-poverty districts as well as their educators," Thompson said.

"We can foster a more stable learning environment, strengthen the talent pool, and improve access and opportunity to high-quality education for all students in our state regardless of their Zip code or socio-economic status," Thompson said.

The report says Michigan’s supplemental funding weights for low-income students is only about one-tenth the size of the weights used in leading states and the size of the funding increase that Michigan provides for English language learners is among the lowest in the country, compared across the 29 states that apply a weight or multiplier to the foundation amount for these students.

It also says Michigan’s highest-poverty districts have long received less state and local funding, on average, than Michigan’s lowest-poverty districts despite serving student populations with significantly greater needs.

States such as Massachusetts and Maryland have passed new policies to provide significantly more funding for low-income students and English language learners than Michigan provides, the report says.

A message seeking comment was left with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office.

The partnership wants state leaders to establish higher funding formula for underserved students based on such practices in Massachusetts which uses a tiered system to target higher levels of additional funding – up to about 105% more – to support low-income students learning in higher-poverty school districts.

Education Trust-Midwest officials said the approach more than doubles the funding available for school districts with the greatest need.

They are asking calling for fiscal transparency and accountability systems to ensure resources are used effectively and reach the schools and classrooms of the children for whom they were intended and for creating new data systems to monitor how the federal education dollars are used by local districts and their impact on recovering and accelerating student learning.

Arellano said what can be done now is an immediate end to Michigan’s automatic cuts to funding for students from low-income backgrounds, which are now triggered in times of budget shortfall without a vote of the state Legislature.

"The last place we look (for cuts) should be there," Arellano said.