Advocates say Michigan lawmakers must do more to fund schools fairly

A wide view of the Michigan State Capitol building with a cloudy sky behind.
This week, advocacy groups asked Michigan lawmakers to give more money for students considered to be at risk. (Elaine Cromie / Chalkbeat)

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Michigan passed a historic school budget last year that gave an additional $200 million in funding to schools in impoverished communities. But advocates say more is needed to fund schools equitably.

During the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 hearing on Wednesday, advocates asked legislators to set aside $500 million more in funding for programs to support students considered at-risk this year, saying the need is “urgent.” They also asked the state to give more per-pupil dollars to English language learners and to reexamine what they called a “broken” funding system for students with disabilities.

The additional money would be allocated to the state’s “opportunity index,” a funding formula created last year that gave more dollars to districts serving communities with higher concentrations of poverty. While the advocates applauded legislators for the gains made last year, they urged the committee to allocate more money to students with high needs and continue to narrow long-existing inequities in school funding.

“It is a formula that will enable us to improve the state of education for all children,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, a group that trains and advocates for parents.

Historically, Michigan has been ranked among the worst states in the nation for its gaps in school funding between wealthy and impoverished communities. Previously, the same amount of per-pupil dollars were given to all students considered to be at-risk. Students are determined to be at risk by the Michigan Department of Education if they meet any of 10 criteria, including being from an economically disadvantaged family, being an English language learner, being chronically absent, and experiencing homelessness.

For years, advocates lobbied for the state to change its funding formula to a more equitable system. Ed Trust Midwest, a nonprofit that does nonpartisan policy research work, asked legislators to adopt the opportunity index funding formula as a step toward that goal.

“You listened, and thanks to your leadership, we are in a much different position this year,” said Jeff Cobb, director of government affairs at Ed Trust Midwest, during the hearing.

Last year, Michigan passed a historic $21.5 billion school aid budget with funding gains that benefited the students with the most needs in the state. For the first time, the budget gave more money to districts with higher concentrations of families living in poverty.

The new system created six “bands,” or levels of funding based on the percentage of students from economically disadvantaged families in a district. Within each band, districts received various percentages of additional funding from the state. For example, a district whose student body is made up of 73% of kids from economically disadvantaged households currently receives an additional 13.7% of base per-pupil funding.

While many advocates applauded the new funding system last year, the dollar amounts fell short of what they recommended. Advocacy groups are again asking for the same dollar amount they initially proposed.

Cobb asked the committee to commit to allocating enough money over the next five years so that the opportunity index would eventually give districts $2.9 billion in additional funding for at-risk students each year. In the 2023-24 budget, nearly $1 billion in extra funding was allocated to school systems.

The state still lags behind other states that lead the charge on equitable funding, as well as the best practices research recommends, said Cobb.

Though Michigan increased funding for programs for English language learners last year, the state still ranked among the worst in the nation compared to the percentage of funding other states allocate to such initiatives in 2023, according to Ed Trust Midwest.

“Unfortunately, Michigan has long underfunded English language learners leaving these students at a large disadvantage compared to their peers,” said Cobb.

Jose Orozco, executive director of nonprofit Voces in Battle Creek, said he’s experienced difficulty accessing resources for English language learners in Michigan schools first-hand.

“I know many families who face challenges ensuring that their child receives a high-quality

public education,” he said. “This is often not the school district’s fault, but rather the continuation of a school funding model that dramatically underinvests in English learners.”

Orozco asked the committee to give an additional $80 million for English language learners in this year’s budget.

“This is still far off from where we need to be,” he said. “The weights in law are still below what research recommends and leading states practice, but this investment would set us on a path towards fully funding these students.”

Another funding area the advocates said desperately requires change is how the state funds education for students with disabilities.

Currently, the state partially reimburses districts for costs related to educating students with disabilities, making it one of seven states that use this model. School systems are reimbursed for 28% of education costs for each student in special education in addition to 100% of the base per-pupil funding amount. The amount the state allocates per student has increased in recent years.

“Michigan districts shoulder much of the funding responsibility for students with disabilities but have varying capacities to cover these costs,” said Cobb. “As a result, students with disabilities are being shortchanged.”

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

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