Different schools, different needs

Statewide study looks into school funding

Seventh-grader Dakota Halquist sketches during a recent meeting of the Bothwell Middle School Art Club. The school is part of Marquette Area Public Schools, whose students’ needs differ from those in other parts of the state. Those differences in needs were the focus of a statewide study recently conducted by the School Finance Research Collaborative. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — A comprehensive statewide study that looks into school funding in Michigan has determined the need for reform in this arena.

Conducted by the School Finance Research Collaborative, or SFRC, a bipartisan group of education experts and business leaders from around the state, the recently released study produced a number of key findings centered on the true cost of providing a good education to every student regardless of income, location or circumstances.

Brian Cherry, a professor of political science at Northern Michigan University and vice president of the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education, talked about the study and its importance.

What prompted the study, he said, was the problem of state school funding in Michigan, with alternative ways needed to accomplish this.

Cherry said he was in graduate school taking a school finance class when Proposal A was passed in 1994.

“My professor at the time said this isn’t going to work because you’re using that sales tax,” Cherry said. “That’s great when the economy’s going well, but when the economy dips, you’re going to have problems, and that’s kind of what we’ve seen. We’ve had a hard time making that money back since then.”

According to Michigan’s State Budget Office, the Michigan Lottery in fiscal year 2016 contributed $888.9 million to the School Aid Fund to support education.

However, Daniel Reattoir, superintendent of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, called the lottery funding mechanism a “shell game.”

“If they put in $100 million into education, that’s $100 million they don’t have to put in from the state’s general fund,” Reattoir said.

To produce a study that would fill in those holes, financing came from the W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott and Skillman foundations, as well as other associations and nonprofits.

The study used two approaches to determine the true cost of student achievement in the state. The Evidence-Based approach used academic research on student performance to identify needed resources for schools to meet state standards. The Professional Judgment approach involved gathering leading educators to identify human resources and operating expenses needed to meet student achievement standards.

The key findings of the SFRC’s report are:

• The base per-pupil cost to educate a regular education K-12 student in Michigan is $9,590, which doesn’t include transportation, food service or capital costs, and includes only pension costs at 4.6 percent of wages.

• Charter schools should have the same base per-pupil funding for a regular education student and the same adjustments to the base amount that traditional districts receive.

• It costs $14,155 to educate a preschool student age 3 or 4.

• A percentage of the base cost should be provided for special education, English Language Learners, students living in poverty and programs to provide Career and Technical Education.

• Transportation costs should be funded at $973 per rider until further study can be conducted.

• Because the state’s school district sizes vary widely and small districts lack economies of scale, district size must be taken into account, with funding increases provided for all districts under 7,500 students.

According to the collaborative, more research will be needed, including a full capital study to examine district costs; a review of literate and illiterate poverty, and concentration of poverty by district; and a full transportation cost study.

Cherry said the hope is that the study will influence how the Michigan Legislature is looking at school funding by giving it the proper data and information.

“This is a whole new funding approach to schools, which is student-centered,” said Robert Moore, school finance research project director and grant program director for the Oakland Schools Education Foundation.

Moore said the study takes into account district characteristics, which include enrollment size, geographic location and related transportation costs, and pension.

Cherry said the study moves away from a “one size fits all” approach.

Take the U.P., for example.

“Our winters are a lot longer,” Cherry said, which translates into higher heating costs because buildings have to be heated for an extended time.

Distance between schools and students’ homes is a factor too.

“Kids are traveling a lot longer, so our buses are getting more use and we have costs associated, and not only that, they’re traveling across U.P. roads in the wintertime, so they get more wear and tear, and more maintenance,” Cherry said.

Reattoir said Proposal A started down the path toward fixing the inequity, but that hasn’t happened.

“With erosion of all the ways they made up the funds for Proposal A, plus allowing some districts to keep the gap going, we’re nowhere near equal funding,” Reattoir said, “but even if we were equal dollar amounts, it’s different depending on where you are.”

Those differences were examined in the study, he said.

“How can we fund what we want to provide to every public school in Michigan?” Reattoir asked. “Every public school student in Michigan should have access to this slate of programs. How can we provide that, no matter where you are? Your zip code shouldn’t matter.”

Cherry agreed.

“We’re trying to be equitable here versus equal because it doesn’t work when you’re trying to educate kids with different needs, different backgrounds and different locations by spending equal dollars,” Cherry said.

Reattoir mentioned Tahquamenon Area Schools as an example.

That district, he said, is the largest geographic school district east of the Mississippi River.

“They spend 11 percent of their budget on transportation, so they’re already starting 89 cents of every dollar that a student in Grand Rapids would have supporting them,” Reattoir said.

The study issued several recommendations:

• The state should conduct a full capital study that examines the costs faced by districts and charter schools.

• Additional study is needed for districts’ transportation needs, and to determine if a separate funding source is required for isolated districts.

• More study is suggested for additional funding for students in “high-needs poverty” classifications.

Moore said the Michigan Legislature needs to build a formula based on the research so progress can be made toward the objective: to get school districts and charter schools the money they need, and until it has enough money, it can be prorated.

Reattoir said the effort doesn’t mean throwing more money into the system; it’s investing in public education in a deliberate way based on research.

He called the study a “road map” on how to spend money.

Reattoir said: “This is all about equity of opportunity, not equity of dollars.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.