Opinion: Direct funds to needy students

Paula Herbart

We often hear politicians say, “It’s about the kids,” and, “The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.” If they truly believe that, they need to craft a state education budget that recognizes a simple fact: Not all students are the same.

Unfortunately, the Republican education budget being considered in Lansing this week fails to recognize that simple fact with another one-size-fits-all spending plan. For every student to get a great education, we must provide funding so that every student gets the support they need.

A 2018 study from the School Finance Research Collaborative found a Michigan school funding shortfall of $2,000 per student, Herbart reports.

Aside from falling short of the $500 million preK-12 increase proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Republican legislative leaders are not considering her weighted funding formula that directs more resources to the students who need the most help.

The School Finance Research Collaborative released a study last year which showed, to no one’s surprise, how drastically underfunded Michigan schools really are. They identified an approximate $2,000 per student shortfall — but they note that figure does not include additional costs for more expensive services needed by some students, including at-risk programs for students living in poverty, special education and career/technical courses. A weighted funding formula can begin to better support these key areas.

Launch Michigan, a diverse alliance of education, labor, business and philanthropic organizations, recently recommended Michigan adopt a weighted approach that would serve the unique needs of all students by putting additional funding behind those key programs.

Launch Michigan has urged the state to prioritize equity, adequacy and effectiveness in state budget decisions by making strategic, evidence-based investments in students with the greatest need. In particular, the coalition is advocating for additional funding for special education, students living in poverty, English language learners, and career/technical education programs, as well as critical investments in literacy programs.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to educating our kids, yet our current school funding process treats them as if they have identical needs,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators and another Launch Michigan steering committee member.

“It should be obvious that it costs more to educate a student enrolled in special education or living in poverty — but the current funding methods ignore this basic fact.  A weighted funding approach would help ensure all students have a chance to develop their talents and prepare them for bright futures, whether that means college, technical training, apprenticeships, or jobs right after graduation.”

A weighted funding system would have a real impact for students who need it most: 

  • Special education students, who must have their learning needs met in order to achieve academically and in life.
  • At-risk students, whose battle with poverty and other factors outside of school can leave them lagging behind without additional support and resources to succeed.
  • Career and technical education students, whose success after high school depends on them beginning to craft their future plans and see the value of life-long education and training.

We owe it to these students to not take the easy way out — to not pretend that “equal” funding is “equitable” funding. If we focus only on how much we spend, and not on how we spend it, we risk leaving countless students behind because their needs are more costly.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.