Column: ‘Adequate’ per-student funding is subjective
Misguided premises often lead to wrong answers. In the case of a new school finance adequacy study, the lesson could be very costly.
A group representing foundations, businesses and public schools rightly wants to address Michigan’s lagging academic achievement. But they have mistakenly placed their faith in finding the “right” funding level for public schools. This despite there being little evidence that the answer will actually drive improvements.
The School Finance Research Collaborative recently released a report that calls to inject a large sum of money into the state’s public schools. Despite its 350 pages, it lacks important details, such as how much it would cost and who’s going to pay for it.
According to the report, large school districts should receive $9,590 in base funding per student, while smaller districts should get higher amounts. It also advocates for attaching significantly more dollars to each non-native English speaker and low-income student. Factored together, the recommended funding level surpasses the $12,000 per pupil schools currently spend.
In all, I estimate at least an additional $2.8 billion would be needed to adopt the report’s recommendations for K-12 funding. This doesn’t include the $14,155 per preschool student the report recommends, which would cost hundreds of millions more.
The Collaborative contracted with two prominent school finance research firms to complete its analysis. One of the firms — Augenblick Palaich & Associates — conducted a similar $400,000 study for the state in 2016. They then said that an adequate amount would be $8,667 per student. This was based on a flawed comparison of how much “notably successful” districts spent on average. Somehow, one-third of these districts were successful despite spending 10 percent less than this recommended amount.
For this most recent report, Augenblick and its partner group relied on three different methods. The “successful” school district method generated a much smaller recommended figure, even less than what was proposed in 2016. But the authors chose to rely on the the “professional judgment” method for determining how much schools should cost taxpayers. This method essentially just asks school officials how much money they’d need to ensure all students meet state standards.
Ultimately, the professional-judgment approach is unreliable. An analysis of adequacy studies performed by the same firm in eight different states over a two-year period found wildly different assumptions and results.
The approach also leads to foreordained conclusions. Ask somebody how much they would spend at their workplace to get the best results, and the answer will inevitably be more. It shouldn’t be surprising that from 2003 to 2014, 38 of 39 adequacy studies conducted in different states recommended just that.
All this despite little evidence that pouring more money into the existing system will make much of a difference for student achievement. A 2016 Mackinac Center report found no connection between higher spending and improving student achievement. There was no statistically significant relationship between levels of spending and levels achievement on 27 of the 28 academic results analyzed.
Providing taxpayer-financed schooling for all children with their diverse interests and abilities is an immensely complicated and challenging task. What works for one student might not work for another, as every teacher knows from experience.
Instead of trying to figure out the one best way of financing each school or program, the state should consider a more decentralized approach: provide a base level of funding for each child, but then let their parents choose, equipped with quality information about school performance, from a wide selection of options.
A funding system that gives parents the power to choose the provider that can best meet their children’s unique needs is one that is fair, simple and, yes, adequate.
Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Fixing Michigan’s Schools
This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries this school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.