Column: School funding a wake-up call
How much does it cost to provide a student with an adequate education?
The short answer: much more than we are currently spending. A report released last month should be a wake-up call for policymakers to fix Michigan’s education funding system. The study by a diverse group of business leaders and education experts pegged the base per-pupil cost to educate a K-12 student in Michigan at $9,590, an increase of 16 to 26 percent over current funding levels of $7,600 to $8,300 per pupil.
The study by the School Finance Research Collaborative recommends additional funding above the base level for special education, English Language Learners, students living in poverty, and Career and Technical Education.
Some of the state’s largest foundations, including W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott and the Skillman Foundation, paid for the study urging policymakers to step up and meet this challenge. Both the nonprofit and business sectors in Michigan understand the huge stakes involved in the success of our public schools.
Challenges unique to urban and rural schools warranted special attention in the study. The ubiquitous poverty in many urban districts places those students far behind the starting line in comparison to students in wealthier districts. The study calls for sharp increases in preschool funding to meet the cost of educating a 3- or 4-year-old student, estimated at $14,155. Investment in high-quality preschool provides significant returns throughout a student’s life.
Aside from the challenges of poverty, geographically large rural districts require additional funding for higher transportation costs, and many lag behind their counterparts in access to technology, necessitating further increases in per-pupil funding.
Michigan’s education funding shortfalls were not accidental. In 2011, the governor and the Legislature had a choice: adequately fund Michigan schools or provide a $2 billion tax break for corporate special interests, many of whom happen to be campaign donors.
Guess which one they picked? To help pay for that corporate tax break, they slashed $1 billion from school funding — knocking Michigan to the bottom of Great Lakes states in school funding.
Around the same time, policymakers made another conscious choice: eliminate the cap on for-profit charter schools, which has led to the dubious distinction of Michigan leading the nation in for-profit charters at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion a year. That investment has not yielded “returns” in the form of high academic achievement, as studies show these for-profit charters do not outperform — and often underperform — traditional neighborhood public schools. Those for-profit charters have yielded huge profits for owners and shareholders.
Legislators and the governor made another choice: yearly raids on the School Aid Fund (SAF). Funding for classrooms across the state could be significantly higher if policymakers only used it to fund K-12 schools, as it was designed. Instead, SAF money has been diverted for other purposes in recent years.
Our state’s dramatic disinvestment in public schools is well-documented in two previous studies: the Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission report and the school funding study commissioned by the Legislature in 2016. The time for studying the problem is over. It is now time to step up and do the job — to adequately fund our schools and stop shortchanging Michigan students.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.