Our editorial: Inadequacy marks school funding reports

The Detroit News

One year after the results of a statewide school adequacy study were released, a new coalition is saying that study was, well, inadequate. The group is spearheading yet another study into Michigan’s school finances.

And while members raise some valid points, it’s unclear how another report will shed more light on school funding.

The School Finance Research Collaborative, 20 members from education and business backgrounds, isn’t satisfied with how schools are financed and believes it’s time for the state to reconsider how best to support its schools and prepare students for the futures.

Fair enough.

The group points to the challenges facing a growing number of districts, which are educating higher numbers of students with special needs and youth who aren’t fluent in English. Those students are undoubtedly more expensive to educate.

In addition, districts in low-income areas struggle with raising funds for capital improvements — a challenge that most wealthier areas don’t have.

The collaborative wants a report that does a deep dive into these issues and lays out a blueprint for how best to meet these needs.

The governor’s 21st Century Education Commission released a detailed report on how to improve schools earlier this year and also found these funding disparities deserved attention. The school finance group wants to build off these recommendations.

Unlike the first adequacy study, which cost taxpayers $400,000, this one is privately funded, so that’s a plus.

Much of the initial funding is from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The rest of the money will come from community and education foundations, says Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools and a member of the coalition. This study is expected to cost at least $750,000.

“What we realized is that we didn’t have a comprehensive data set, and we think that’s going to be needed,” Cook-Robinson says.

The first adequacy study was a bad idea from the beginning, as it was born out a desperate attempt by Republicans to get Democratic support for a road funding ballot proposal in late 2014.

It didn’t do much good. That report, as was expected, called more for per-pupil funding but didn’t offer much additional value.

The collaborative blames that on the lack of detail in the original proposal request, which only called for one methodology to be employed: “the successful school district model.”

Apparently, at least two methodologies are required for a useful study.

What’s most disappointing is the coalition has decided to go with the same firm that did last year’s report. Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates is the go-to company for these studies and that’s because it concludes that lack of funding is to blame for most states’ school problems and this opens states up to lawsuits. California-based Picus, Odden and Associates is going to help with the research.

Business members of the group have made it clear they aren’t interested in that kind of study, says Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA. While the collaborative claims to seek a report that will look beyond funding, it’s uncertain that’s what they will get.

When looking at per-capita income, Michigan already ranks in the top 10 for K-12 per-pupil spending. Not all schools allocate their money as well as others. A helpful report would figure out what successful schools are doing right — and what others aren’t.

As other states have shown, however, expect this adequacy study to be a more expensive, longer version of what came out last year.