The Numbers Behind Upcoming Adequacy Study

Michigan students slow to improve, despite increased funding

Some Michigan officials are preparing to tell us how many more dollars ought to be poured into the state’s K-12 school system. They expect to have an official report in hand soon to make their case, but other recently released numbers raise some tough questions.

On last week’s edition of “Off the Record,” Michigan Association of School Administrators Executive Director Chris Wigent confidently declared that his group is “very, very optimistic” about forthcoming results from the state’s adequacy study.

Wigent prefaced his optimistic assertion by noting that Michigan’s “current funding system is just broken.” There may be flaws in the way the state allocates funds to schools. But the real challenge comes in finding genuine solutions that best serve students while honoring the investment taxpayers are compelled to make.

The typical game plan of commissioning adequacy studies, as demonstrated in numerous other states, is to lay the foundation for new legislation or a court order to significantly increase K-12 funding.

Michigan’s study was commissioned as part of a December 2014 legislative deal to place a road funding proposal before voters. According to Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget was in charge of the process of getting the bids for the study, reviewing and scoring them, and awarding the contract. The State Administrative Board approved the final $399,000 contract with the Denver-based firm Augenblick, Palaich & Associates to perform the analysis.

APA is an experienced hand at this sort of work, as they say, seeking to determine “what resources are necessary to ensure students, schools, and districts can meet” state academic standards. One of APA’s four touted approaches to develop its findings is the professional judgment model, in which investigators ask panels of education leaders how much money they need to meet student proficiency goals.

A careful look at a new national report places that kind of thinking on very shaky ground.

Every year, the publication Education Week releases its Quality Counts survey, which grades states on a host of funding and achievement measures. This year’s survey gauged how states fared during the 12 years under the strict accountability guidelines of the federal No Child Left Behind education regime. Education Week's analysts used the highly regarded NAEP test, nicknamed the nation’s report card, to determine how many students were proficient in reading and math in 2015 compared with 2003.

Over this 12-year period, only one state actually lost ground on the battery of fourth-grade and eighth-grade tests: Michigan. Overall, no other state actually experienced the misfortune of a lowering of the proficiency rate.

To accept the logic behind the state’s pending adequacy study, one would have to assume that cuts to Michigan education funding have caused the decline.

The fiscal data undermine that story, however. While final spending amounts haven’t been reported for the 2014-15 school year, Quality Counts has tallied finances through 2012-13. Michigan’s K-12 spending outpaced inflation by 7 percent over the 10-year period (up to $12,000 per pupil), an overall increase that includes the potent effects of a deep recession.

Simply put, as Michigan’s K-12 enrollment has fallen, more dollars have been spent on each remaining student. Meanwhile, measurable results are flat, or floundering.

Some may wish to write it off as a Detroit problem, or a poverty problem. But a deeper look at the NAEP tests offer no such consolation. Michigan’s middle- and upper-class students showed less progress than their low-income peers, especially in the area of reading, from 2003 to 2015.

During the last dozen years, most of the nation has advanced — albeit modestly — toward meeting important academic goals. Yet Michigan kids from middle- and upper-income families most clearly buck the trend. That’s one way to close the stubborn achievement gap between rich and poor. But it’s not a way to brighten the futures for more students.

When the state releases its adequacy study, some may only ask education officials if they agree with how much more should be offered from the state’s checkbook.

But what’s really needed is a serious look at the track record of turning resources into results in Michigan schools, and evidence for how to spend the money more wisely.

Editor's Note: This piece originally said that the state Board of Education approved the contract. The board was not involved in the deal.