One More Time on Equity in School Funding

You know from many of my previous postings on this site as well as my personal blog (Rebel 6 Ramblings) that our state legislature and governor continue to perpetuate a very inequitable system of providing classroom funding for Michigan’s public schools. We know, especially here at Godfrey-Lee where a very dedicated teaching staff provides effective educational services for a large percentage of students struggling with the English language (EL) or dealing with the impacts of poverty in their lives, that our state funding does not provide adequate access to equitable programs and supports to ensure every student has a chance for high-level academic success. Our legislature knows it as well but turns a blind eye in favor of providing tax cuts for businesses or avoiding personal tax increases in a state where we just learned achievement growth is lowest in the nation and all around us we see our infrastructure crumbling.

 

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http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/after-nearly-a-decade-school-investments-still-way-down-in-some-states

Meanwhile, there are school districts throughout Kent County and Michigan financially capable of adding new and innovative programs designed to prepare their students, many of which come from affluent families and communities, for college and 21st century careers. A sizeable number of those districts which not only receive more classroom funding, do not have to spend nearly as much on interventions and supports designed to close the learning gaps of students who fell behind because of poverty, EL or other obstacles. They are free to spend greater numbers of dollars on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), robotics, arts, and a whole host of higher level learning and dual college programs that continue to widen the opportunity gap for kids across Kent County and Michigan.

Better funding for schools leads to better long-term outcomes for students, a careful study concludes. ~ Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

It’s not just the inequity of classroom funding but also our inequitable system of funding capital improvements. Godfrey-Lee has one of the lowest state-equalized-evaluations (SEV) per student in Michigan primarily due to our lack of industrial or large commercial properties as well as lower assessments on residential property. What this means is that when considering bonding for improvements, upgrades, or replacement of our educational facilities to support 21st century learning, including the addition of sorely-needed air conditioning for extended year programs or consideration of a balanced-calendar, the amount of funding available from local property taxes to pay for bonds does not come close to comparing with other area school districts.

School Districts with Lowest SEV per pupil (>1000 enrollment) County SEV Per Pupil in $
Carrollton Public Schools SAGINAW 31,253
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools KENT 47,927
Bendle Public Schools GENESEE 54,896
Hamtramck, School District of the City of WAYNE 56,799
Harper Woods, The School District of the City of WAYNE 60,846
Oak Park, School District of the City of OAKLAND 66,427
Hazel Park, School District of the City of OAKLAND 69,491
Westwood Heights Schools GENESEE 71,002
Dearborn Heights School District #7 WAYNE 71,174
Vandercook Lake Public Schools JACKSON 73,213
Oakridge Public Schools MUSKEGON 76,762
Mt. Morris Consolidated Schools GENESEE 77,657
School Districts with Highest SEV per pupil (>1000 enrollment) County SEV Per Pupil in $
Elk Rapids Schools ANTRIM 702,932
Charlevoix Public Schools CHARLEVOIX 701,471
Roscommon Area Public Schools ROSCOMMON 643,255
Bloomfield Hills Schools OAKLAND 599,495
Birmingham Public Schools OAKLAND 549,964
Houghton Lake Community Schools ROSCOMMON 540,979
Ludington Area School District MASON 499,552
Benzie County Central Schools BENZIE 494,790
Oscoda Area Schools IOSCO 479,544
Public Schools of Petoskey EMMET 477,500
Pontiac City School District OAKLAND 473,048
Royal Oak Schools OAKLAND 454,228

The chart above lists the twelve districts with the lowest SEV per pupil (top) and the twelve districts with the highest SEV per pupil (bottom). In both cases, only districts with 1,000 or more enrolled students are included.  Source: Michigan Bulletin 1014 for 2015-16 school year available at www.mi.gov/mde

One more example of the inequity in local school bonding capacity is to make a quick comparison between our district and Rockford Public Schools using total debt millage figures from 2016 (obtained from www.msbo.org):

District SEV Per Pupil Debt Millage Rate $$ Per Pupil
Godfrey-Lee $47,927 12.59 $603.40
Rockford $198,680 8.5 $1,688.78

So in short, Godfrey-Lee would have to increase our debt millage nearly three times as much to generate the same number of dollars per pupil, something that even if possible would be a substantial burden on home and small business owners in our district.

Instructional and Operating Funds

I’ve laid out the problem in general terms but let’s take a closer look at how inequitable our Michigan public school funding system really is.

First of all, it’s important to know the sources of funding we receive to operate our school district and provide classrooms and highly-qualified teachers for our students:

  • Foundation allowance: this is the largest portion of our funding and it comes from a combination of local property taxes combined with an appropriation by our state legislature. Our current foundation allowance is $7,511 per student which is the minimum appropriated by the state. The chart below shows our annual foundation allowance for each year going back to 1995 when voters through “Proposal A” put the full responsibility for school funding on our state legislature.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 5.16.30 PM

The graph above illustrates the growing gap between the real $$ provided through the foundation allowance and the value when adjusted for inflation, or increasing costs, since 1995. It also shows the inconsistency in the politically motivated appropriations process where school districts are left wondering if they will have less funding or more each year. The green line at the bottom illustrates how the value of per pupil school funding has steadily declined despite the claim by Lansing politicians that they have increased funding for K-12 education (we now call that “fake news”). The following graph from the House Fiscal Agency shows the same gap across the state as nominal dollars fail to keep up with inflation:

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-7-51-57-am

  • Districts receive other state funding through grants, the largest being at-risk (31A) and special education funding. These and other smaller grants are restricted to programs and services that support specific students. For example, at-risk funding can only be used for qualifying students to help provide supports in core subject areas (primarily math and reading). These are important funds but they cannot be broadly used to operate the district, school or classroom other than instructional supports to the student. As one example, these funds cannot be used to pay the light or other utility bills necessary to provide a suitable classroom for that student. They also cannot be used to maintain or repair buildings or purchase up-to-date lab equipment for science or technology courses.
  • Districts receive federal funding that varies depending on socio-economic, demographic, or special needs of students. These are what are referred to as “Title” funds and are targeted towards specific students. They have many of the same restrictions, or often even greater restrictions, as the state funds indicated above. Food service funds for providing free or reduced price breakfast and lunch programs based on federal poverty indicators are a separate category.
  • Bonds and what we call “sinking funds” are voter-approved local funds that depend on the number of “mils” approved by voters and the value of property within the district. These cannot be used for any school or classroom operations, instructional materials, salaries or benefits and are strictly limited to capital improvements, maintenance or repair of facilities, and the purchase of technology. I wrote above about the limitations in our district to this type of funding due to having the second lowest per-pupil property valuation (SEV) in the state. This means a one-mil bond or sinking fund approved by the voters would generate 1 dollar for every $1,000 of property value. In our district, using the chart above, it would generate approximately $47 per pupil while in Elk Rapids, it would generate $702 per pupil, approximately fifteen times as much for each mil.

For comparison of the inequity in combined local, state and federal revenues (not including bonds or sinking funds), I’ve created the following two tables. In the first table, using 2015-16 financial data from the Michigan Bulletin 1014, I compare Godfrey-Lee with districts in Kent County that receive more revenue per pupil. Also provided is the rank for per-pupil funding in comparison to all districts and charter schools in Michigan.

School District Total Revenue Per Pupil State Rank
Grand Rapids 11,788 93
Godwin Heights 11,296 113
Northview 10,860 146
Forest Hills 10,539 183
Kent City 10,493 190
Kentwood 10,361 207
Kelloggsville 10,323 212
Wyoming 10,318 214
Godfrey-Lee 10,208 243

As you can see, the difference per pupil between Godfrey-Lee and the other districts ranges from a low of $110 to a high of $1,580. To be fair, some of the local funds may include grants from foundations or businesses for specific school improvement projects. Nonetheless, every dollar per pupil difference, particularly between districts with higher and lower levels of at-risk and EL students, adds to the inequity of opportunity.

One additional comparison that is important more so than comparing districts within Kent County, is to look at our per-pupil funding compared to the four Oakland County school districts listed as having some of the highest property values in Michigan from the table above.

School District Total Revenue Per Pupil State Rank
Pontiac 17,846 30
Bloomfield Hills 15,591 38
Birmingham 14,558 44
Royal Oak 11,188 118

In this comparison, Godfrey-Lee received anywhere from $980 to $7,638 per student for the 2015-16 school year. Bloomfield and Birmingham, both considered home to very affluent families, averaged $4,866 more per pupil than Godfrey-Lee, probably one of the greatest indicators of how inequitable Michigan’s school funding system is.

Will Equity Improve?

While it may and has improved, equality let alone equity is unlikely to be achieved within my lifetime. K-12 funding is totally dependent on the political process and every two years, we have a new cast of characters in Lansing with their own personal and party agendas. Schools have not been a substantial part of that agenda except to enact policies that make it more difficult to operate. But just for kicks, let’s compare revenue over the years for Godfrey-Lee and Bloomfield Hills just comparing the major source of funding — the foundation allowance — since 2011-12.

School District School Year 2011-12 Foundation School Year 2016-17 Foundation Ave. Annual Increase
Bloomfield Hills 11,854 12,064 42
Godfrey-Lee 7,004 7,511 101
Difference 4,850 4,553 59

From the figures in the above table, the difference in the average annual increase between the two districts is $59 per pupil. In other words, Godfrey-Lee has gained ground on Bloomfield Hills at the rate of $59 per year since 2011-12. As of 2016-17, assuming a similar rate of annual increases (which may or may not occur at the whim of the legislature and governor), which by the way don’t even keep up with inflation, it will take 77 more years before both districts are receiving an equal foundation allowance (and equal, by the way, is not equitable). So we’re talking the year 2094, maybe. Few if any of us other than the youngest kids will be around to find out.

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As for equity itself, where equity is defined as the funding levels necessary to provide the supports for each student, regardless of their circumstances such as poverty, zip code, language barriers, special needs, etc., so that each has an equitable opportunity to pursue the same educational outcomes, it’s becoming more and more unlikely that will ever happen. This past June, a report was issued at the request of the state legislature to determine what it costs to educate a child in Michigan. Titled the “Michigan Education Finance Study” conducted by the firm of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, the study, although incomplete because it did not factor in special education costs, concluded the following regarding per pupil funding:

  • Districts that receive the base foundation allowance should receive an immediate increase to $8,667 (compared to the $7,511 currently received by Godfrey-Lee) to provide an adequate education for all students
  • Funding for at-risk students should be increased by 30%
  • Funding for ELL students should be increased by 40%

If our legislature had the moral will to fund K-12 public education at an adequate and equitable level, these recommendations would increase revenues for students in our district by an additional $5,172 per pupil providing more equal (not equitable) funding when compared for instance to Bloomfield Hills. Total increased costs for the state under this recommendation would be around $4 billion, which, while it seems high, compares favorably with the fact that our current statewide taxation versus personal wealth gap is in the neighborhood of $10 billion. So it’s doable.

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This is my last opportunity as a K-12 superintendent to rail against the inequitable public school funding system in Michigan and it’s continuing negative impact on school districts like ours. Equitable funding for schools that serve majority populations of low income and EL students is critical not only for those children and their communities, but for Michigan itself as we seek not only to be a Top 10 in 10 education state, but one that provides a highly educated citizenry to drive our economy and general welfare. In short, school districts like Godfrey-Lee with adequate and equitable funding can help meet these goals as they:

  • Compete with other districts for recruitment and retention of high quality educational leaders and teachers in every classroom.
  • Provide teachers and school administrators with greater opportunities for embedded professional learning and coaching.
  • Provide for lower class sizes, as in many of the affluent districts, that will help strengthen the teacher-student relationship and give greater attention to individual students who need it more.
  • Replace or significantly upgrade outdated school structures to provide more flexible learning spaces and a comfortable learning environment no matter what time of year it might be.
  • Provide greater access to college and career counselors who can work with families that may have never experienced college life.
  • Give greater access for students to STEM and high-level courses that are both challenging and engaging.
  • Provide a healthy and inspiring mix of electives and extra-curricular activities including the arts, technology, life-skills, athletics, service learning, and leadership development.
  • Give students more opportunities for field trips and travel that expand their awareness of different cultures, the workings of government, careers, and the environment.
  • Give students, their teachers, and their families a greater sense of worth, a feeling that they are valued just as much by our state as wealthier families in more affluent school districts, because our state legislature treats them as a priority through the appropriations process.

I probably could have a lot more to say on this, but over the past nearly nine years as superintendent, I’ve exhausted pretty much all there is to say. The ball is really in Lansing’s court and it remains to be seen if our district’s kids will ever be treated equitably.

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About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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