State school chief calls for action on aid study

Michael Gerstein Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston called on lawmakers Tuesday to address growing education inequities highlighted in a recent state-funded report.

The disparity between the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts appears to be on the rise, said the report’s authors from Denver-based education policy consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates in a presentation to the State Board of Education.

They said it’s exacerbated by inadequate per-pupil funding for at-risk students and those learning English as a second language; their instruction often proves costlier than that of their peers, the study said.

“We gotta continue to look at equity,” Whiston told The Detroit News during a recess from the meeting.

Whiston said in a statement later, “We can’t just pour more money into the current way of doing things. We can invest more generously into our education system, and in exchange, build a better system that offers a longer school year; more learning opportunities for students; more targeted professional development for educators; and needed wraparound services for English language learners and children in poverty.”

He added that the state should take a serious look at increasing funding for some students, such as those in poorer districts or who are learning English as a second language.

Democrats insisted the study be included as part of a legislative deal on a road funding ballot proposal that voters rejected in May 2015. But Ben DeGrow, director of education policy for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, criticized the study.

The study’s researchers always suggest increased funding in their reports, DeGrow said. There is no indication that’s necessarily the key factor in a better education, he said, instead suggesting more charter school options could help parents.

“Even by their best estimates … a massive increase in funding would only move the needle in achievement very slightly,” DeGrow said. “That’s one of our key observations.”

DeGrow said that 19 of the 54 districts the study identified as “notably successful” spend 10 percent less than the suggested $8,667 per pupil baseline and still achieve “similar results.”

“In the end, that study leaves more questions than answers,” DeGrow said.

But board President John Austin said the study validates what he and other Democrats in the Legislature have long called for: More K-12 funding.

The study found that the state’s successful school districts spent $8,667 per pupil. The study lists that figure as a “baseline” for ensuring districts do well by the study’s metrics. It may cost more for students learning English as a second language or for at-risk kids in urban areas, according to the study.

The report’s authors said the biggest determining factor for poorly performing school districts is whether the students are at-risk or have special needs that may be more expensive to meet than those at other schools.

“Everything is reversed,” said Kathleen Strauss, a board member. “The wealthy get better education, have more funding, when it should be the opposite.”

After this year’s budget was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in late June, schools will receive between $7,511 and $8,229 in per-pupil funding in the upcoming school year, with the higher end still shy of the report’s suggested baseline.

The Michigan Education Association, American Federation of Teachers Michigan and the Middle Cities Education Association all released statements after the Tuesday presentation praising the study and calling for the Legislature to increase education funding.

“The Legislature now has hard data available to make educated decisions about fixing how we fund schools,” MEA president Steven Cook said in a statement. “Addressing that fundamental inequity is essential to providing all Michigan students with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

mgerstein@detroitnews.com