Our editorial: Money just one part of school equation

The Detroit News

School funding debates are usually contentious, with some arguing more money could solve most schools’ woes and others saying it’s more about how that funding is spent. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

A new report on Michigan school financing has brought the conversation to the forefront. It’s a debate worth having. As part of our Fixing Michigan’s Schools series, we’ve devoted space in recent weeks to this topic. The latest installment is elsewhere in our Think section.

As political, business and education leaders look to improve this state’s standing nationally when it comes to school performance, expect funding to be a significant part of that discussion.

That’s welcome. But it shouldn’t overshadow other important discussions about improving how students are taught — as well as entrenched structural problems that eat into funds school currently have.

The School Finance Research Collaborative, composed of a diverse group of business and school leaders, released its statewide study last month. It takes a close look at how much funding is needed to offer Michigan students a quality education. As expected, the answer is “more.”

This is the second adequacy study in the past two years. Taxpayers spent $400,000 on the 2016 study, and the information in that report hasn’t moved policy, which is why the collaborative wanted to take another stab at it. Yet one of the firms the members chose was Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, which conducted the first study.

The new study’s main finding is that the base per-pupil cost to educate a regular education K-12 student in Michigan is $9,590 (not including transportation, food service or capital costs). That is more than recommended by the 2016 study, which called for $8,667 per student. And there’s not a great explanation for the different estimates.

The report also calls for more funding for small districts, which lack economies of scale, and for students in poverty and those who are English learners.

Similar studies done in more than 30 other states nearly all came to the same conclusion that more money was the answer, and those studies have been used to justify calls for increased funding. And they’ve also served as the basis for lawsuits when states didn’t fall in line.

Gov. Rick Snyder has already included a sizable additional investment in the state’s per-pupil funding of $120 to $240 per student, with students in low-income districts getting more money.

Any additional funding must come with direct accountability to ensure those funds are actually helping the students who need it most.

Similarly, the structural problems districts face should be identified and addressed before the state starts writing bigger checks to schools. For instance, Michigan doesn’t need the cost of 56 intermediate school districts, which divert funding from schools that directly serve students. Also, pensions in the state still consume too much of payroll costs. Last year it was 37 percent, and while new reforms will lower that burden over time, more should be done now to make sure the most money possible is heading to the classroom.

Also many districts are dealing with enrollment declines. Large districts like Detroit especially need to do more to right-size their overhead. Enrollment within the Detroit Public Schools Community District is only at about 60 percent of capacity — a clear waste of resources.

Those problems should be fixed simultaneously with any increase in funding.