Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here:

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.

Bigger budgets

Four things to know about the education proposals in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s 2019 budget

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

In his eighth and final state budget address Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder detailed his proposal to give the schools their largest funding increase in 15 years. The Republican governor  also proposed extra cash for special education and career and technical training. The proposals — part of Snyder’s $56.8 billion draft budget — now go to the legislature. Lawmakers hope to strike a final deal with Snyder by June so the 2019 budget can take effect when the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Among the governor’s education proposals:

More money for all state schools

In a state where some districts have historically gotten much more money per student than others, lower-funded districts would get a bigger bump from the governor’s proposal. If Snyder’s proposal is approved by the legislature, districts now getting the minimum per pupil funding amount ($7,631) will get an extra $240 per student — a 3.1 percent increase. That would affect about 75 percent of traditional schools,  including Detroit’s main district, as well as all of the state’s charter schools. Districts that get more money per student — those that had higher funding levels when the state first enacted its current funding system in the 1990s, and get as much as $8,409 per student— would see an extra $120 per student.

The bump in per-student funding would be the largest since the 2001-02 fiscal year, when funding was increased by $500 per pupil. The 2006-07 budget was the only time since then that the minimum amount was increased by more than $200. “This is a significant increase and would close the equity gap between the high and low from the time we started (in office) by over 50 percent, which is very significant because we have many districts that are at the minimum,” Snyder said in the address.

Dan Quisenberry, who heads the state’s charter school association, applauded the governor’s proposal to give charter schools and districts at the low end of the funding scale an increase in funds that’s twice the size of the increase going to districts at the top of the scale. “We continue to support the recommendation that addresses the unfair funding gap that exists in our state,” Quisenberry said. “Every public school student in Michigan deserves the same opportunity at a quality education, and that can only happen if we value all students equally.”


The money will be distributed using the same formula the state has used for decades

Though a prominent group of education and business leaders recently issued a major report calling on the state to dramatically change the way it funds schools, Snyder’s proposal sticks with the state’s traditional funding formula. The report, a product of nearly two years and $900,000 in research, called for schools to get more money for needier students. It proposed a formula that would send schools 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, and up to 115 percent more for students with disabilities. Snyder’s budget has no extra money for any groups and, like past budgets, would send schools the same amount of money per student regardless of need.

Robert Moore, the deputy superintendent of Oakland Schools, who is one of the leaders of the group behind the study, the School Finance Research Collaborative, said that’s a mistake.

“It’s always good news there’s a funding increase,” Moore said, “but the problem is it’s not addressing the inequities. The funding is not based on any reasonable basis. It’s just an incremental change in a positive direction on a broken, outdated system. While we are welcoming the additional funding, it is in no way being done in a manner consistent in what we know about how much services cost for students in districts and charter schools across the state. It’s a long way to go.”


Funding for special education would also go up — at least for the state’s youngest children

The Republican governor proposed increasing state spending in Michigan’s Early On program, which offers intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities, and their families. The budget would add an extra $5 million to a program that now gets $1.4 billion.

Snyder did not propose an increase for the K-12 special education program despite an alarming study released by the state last year that found Michigan schools spend almost $700 million more every year on special education than they get from the state. The shortfall means schools have to take money from their regular programs to pay for mandated services and therapies to help children with special needs. A number of studies in recent months have called on the state to increase special education funding for K-12 education, including the School Finance Research Collaborative and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.


School districts could get up to $50 per student to expand career and technical training programs.

The proposed increase is believed to be the first per-pupil funding boost for career and technical education programs. That’s according to the Michigan Career Pathways Alliance,  a coalition of educators, employers, and unions in partnership with the state education department and economic development agency.  The organization reports 109,000 students are enrolled in career tech programs in the state.

The funding for career training comes as Snyder has vowed to better prepare the state’s students for jobs in high tech fields following Amazon’s decision to cut Michigan cities from consideration for its new second headquarters. In passing on Detroit, the retail giant cited the region’s lack of highly educated workers who could do the high-tech work that Amazon needs.

Snyder said he’s planning to announce a “Marshall Plan for Talent” in coming weeks. The bump in the budget for career tech programs could be a part of that effort.

“We are incredibly excited that the executive budget recommendations presented today by Gov. Rick Snyder includes an investment in expanding Career and Technical Education for students in Michigan,” said Roger Curtis, director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. “This investment will greatly help schools offering and successfully operating tech programs and further demonstrates Michigan’s commitment to being the national leader in developing talent and providing multiple pathways for students to high-demand, high-wage jobs.”

More details about the governor’s proposed budget can be found here.