After 19 months and hundreds of interviews with educators across the state, a collaborative of Michigan school officials, former legislators and business leaders is set to release recommendations next month for a better way to fund schools. 

The Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation and a $100,000 grant from the Mott Foundation. Combined with a 2016 grant from Kellogg and contributions from 18 intermediate school districts, the group has raised $842,609 to fund the study.

The collaborative has high hopes for this project because the report uses information from hundreds of diverse sources to decide how to properly fund Michigan schools.

“School finance in Michigan is broken,” said Robert Moore, project director and deputy superintendent of finance and operations at Oakland Schools. “You have to have good information to support the reform efforts.”

A study of Michigan school finance last year recommended that the state increase school funding level to $8,667 per student with additional funds for children who have special needs and those who are still learning English. The majority of schools in the state still receive less than $8,000.

That earlier state-funded study was largely ignored by lawmakers but Moore says he believes the new study coming out next month will paint a fuller picture of the challenges facing Michigan schools and will have a stronger impact because it uses different methods to determine whether districts are sufficiently funded.

While the state’s 2016 study did provide a breakdown of student education costs, the effort from the School Finance Research Collaborative will include information from current and former teachers, something the previous study did include.

The prior study only looked at “successful” schools to determine how much funding schools need. It did not consider whether some students are more expensive to educate. 

“They only relied on tests scores, meaning if you take a wealthy district, kids come in at the 80th percentile and they leave at the 80th percentile,” Moore said. “What about a district that has kids come at 20 and leave at 65? They weren’t included, and neither was special education or charter schools.

“When we redid this, we insisted on two other methods, so in the end Michigan would have the benefit of three total methods, and that will make the resulting information really powerful in driving school finance reform,” he added.

This time, researchers used two additional methods for the new study.  A total of 266 educators, two thirds of whom were teachers, shared their experiences and views on student financing needs. Researchers looked at geographic cost differences, labor cost differences, and analysis of geographic isolation, among other factors.

The new research is already set to be used by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, whose co-chair, CEO of the Skillman Foundation Tonya Allen, is also a member of the financing project. (The Skillman Foundation is also a Chalkbeat funder). The study’s assessment of special education costs will support a key coalition priority to change the way schools in Michigan are funded. 

“We need to know the answer and the true cost” of educating students, Moore said, so the collaborative can work “to help move Michigan toward a better place.”