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Opinion: Launch Michigan should make bolder call for education equity

Jeremy L. Singer

Last week, the Launch Michigan campaign released its “Phase 1” proposal for statewide educational reform, which includes a weighted funding formula that would give extra per-pupil funding for students in poverty.

As a former Detroit Public Schools teacher and a current educational policy researcher in Detroit, I support the call for more equitable funding. The problem is that Launch Michigan’s call does not go far enough.

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy teacher Shauntay Frazier adjusts the desks in her classroom.

There are three ways that their funding equity proposal needs to be improved. The state funding formula must: (1) define levels of poverty and increase the funding multiplier above the 0.35 baseline for higher-need students in poverty; (2) increase the multiplier for students attending a school with a high concentration of poverty; and (3) create an additional funding stream for building and physical infrastructure improvements. Without all three, funding increases will not be truly equitable.

The first problem is somewhat technical: how we define poverty. Michigan defines students as “economically disadvantaged” if they meet any of the following criteria: eligible for free or reduced-price meals, live in a household receiving food (SNAP) or cash (TANF) assistance, are homeless, are migrant, or are in foster care. This definition does not identify different levels of poverty. For instance, students in a family of four can be identified as economically disadvantaged with family incomes ranging from $47,638 down to $0.

That’s why the way we define poverty is important: it affects how much we decide that students need. Launch Michigan’s recommendation for a 0.35 multiplier for students in poverty comes from the School Finance Research Collaborative’s funding adequacy studies.

The authors of the 2018 adequacy report make a clear recommendation that additional funding is needed for high need students in poverty. However, they write that “at this time, the study team does not have a recommendation on the definition for these [high need poverty] students.”

The state has the adequate data to provide a definition, but those data are not available to researchers or policymakers. A funding formula that does not account for different levels of poverty will end up providing too little money for too many students in need.

The second part of the problem is that Launch Michigan’s proposal does not include increased funding for students who attend high-poverty schools. Research shows that concentrated poverty is more like multiplication than addition—when more students living in poverty are concentrated in the same school, even more resources are needed to support those students. So, in addition to defining levels of individual poverty, a truly equitable funding formula must include additional funding based on higher levels of school poverty.

Finally, in addition to a per-pupil increase in funding based on student need, districts like the Detroit Public Schools Community District require additional funding packages to repair buildings and physical infrastructure. Buildings in disrepair lead to worse conditions for teaching and learning, and research has shown that poor building conditions are associated with worse student outcomes.

The good news is that we can address all three of these problems. We need a legislative mandate to integrate state data systems in order to create better measures of poverty at the individual and school levels. The 0.35 multiplier must be seen as a baseline that increases based on higher student need and higher concentrations of poverty.

In addition, the state should create a funding stream for school building improvements — it is a necessary part of equitable school funding and infrastructure investment state-wide.

With these improvements, we can provide truly equitable funding and greatly improve the opportunities, experiences, and outcomes for all of Michigan’s students.

Jeremy L. Singer is a doctoral student in educational leadership and policy studies in the College of Education at Wayne State University.