How They Spin 'Underfunded Schools': Ignore the Federal Money

Excluding 25 percent of Detroit school funding paints a false picture

One of the most inaccurate narratives promoted in the Detroit school bailout debate is that poor urban districts like Detroit are underfunded compared to schools in more affluent suburbs.

What this storyline fails to acknowledge is the role of federal money in hiking funding for poorer urban school districts. All school districts get some federal money, but poor districts get a lot more, and the difference is significant.

To illustrate, the average amount of federal money received by all Michigan school districts was $513 per pupil during 2014-15, but poor districts like Detroit ($3,494 per pupil), Benton Harbor ($3,278), Pontiac ($3,253) and Flint ($2,389) got much more.

Meanwhile, affluent suburban districts such as DeWitt ($58 per pupil), Okemos ($118), East Grand Rapids ($158) and Birmingham ($288) all received federal funding well below the state average.

Poor urban districts receive more because federal grants are targeted mainly to help economically disadvantaged students. Yet, some narratives ignore this data.

For example, Eclectablog, a self-described progressive blog run by Washtenaw Democratic Party Chair Chris Savage, contained several inaccurate claims in a recent article on Detroit Public Schools:

-- “Disinvestment in education in places like Detroit led to starving local schools of adequate funding. …”

-- “Republicans have continuously sought to educate urban kids on the cheap and to avoid making the necessary investments in their schools.”

-- “In addition to birthing the for-profit charter industry in Michigan and ensuring that poor kids’ schools would never be comparable to their counterparts in wealthier districts, ...” the website said.

The sins of omission go beyond just the blogosphere, however.

An award-winning teacher from Birmingham Public Schools also believed there was a funding gap between affluent suburbs and poorer urban districts in an op-ed penned in Bridge magazine.

Michigan 2015-16 Teacher of the Year Rick Joseph wrote on Feb. 16, 2016, “This narrative exists all over our state, I have witnessed it in the funding gaps that exist between debt-ridden urban and rural areas and affluent suburbs, from Detroit to Birmingham, Grand Rapids to Forest Hills, or Lansing to Dewitt. Nowhere in Michigan are these inequities more obvious than in Detroit.”

And a local Novi news site did a story this month on DPS that inaccurately portrayed DPS as underfunded compared to the districts in suburban communities such as Novi.

A section heading within the article read: “City, suburbs, unequal.”

But Detroit Public Schools received $169.3 million in federal money into its general fund in 2015 ($3,494 per pupil), while Novi received $1.6 million ($250 per pupil).

That huge federal funding boost gave DPS a significant overall funding advantage over Novi when general fund revenues are included (local, state and federal). DPS received $13,743 per pupil overall compared to Novi’s $10,965 per pupil.