Honest Education Discussion Requires Counting All the Dollars

Michigan should spend smarter before spending more

Though the evidence for Michigan spending its way to educational success continues to disappoint, its champions have turned to misdirection and misinformation to keep pressing their cause forward.

The release of the $400,000 Michigan Education Finance Study (better known as the adequacy study) was far more of an early summer flop than a box office hit. As Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson laments, the study “landed with the force of a feather on desks in Lansing.” His call for the adequacy study to start “a bigger conversation” about school funding was echoed a few days later in a Free Press column written by education professors Michael Addonizio and David Arsen.

Where the Henderson column begins, the Addonizio and Arsen one ends: seeking to dismantle the straw man argument that “money doesn’t matter in education.” Ironically, both columns treat some education money as if it doesn’t matter.

The education professors fixed their sights on a subset of education dollars to sustain the claim that Michigan’s per-pupil funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation. But their analysis leaves out more than $1.6 billion school districts collect in non-general fund revenue and nearly $2.6 billion in intermediate school district revenue. As a result, their calculations miss the fact that the state’s funding has inched back ahead of pre-recession levels.

Addonizio and Arsen also assert that the adequacy study’s prescription of $8,667 to properly educate a typical non-low-income general education student is based on the record of districts that operate “efficiently.” Yet they omit that the adequacy study found 19 of its 54 “notably successful” districts spend on average 10 percent less than the recommended amount.

Less clear is precisely what Henderson omitted in his claim that $8,667 is “more than we spend right now in Detroit, in many other urban districts and in most rural ones.” Official government data show that DPS’s 2014-15 operating expenditure was just over $16,000 per student.

The Free Press editor acknowledges as a “flaw” in the study the observation that more money would offer only a “slow-going means of improvement.” Each additional $1,000 per student, according to the study, would increase math and reading achievement by 1 percent. That means funding would have to be more than doubled to make sure one-third of Michigan’s 11th-graders reach proficiency in math.

Michigan starts out way behind academically, and already rates as one of the nation’s top education spenders. Education Week’s apples-to-apples comparison places Michigan at 43rd in math and reading achievement among the 50 states.

Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek has found most academic studies find little or no statistical connection between spending and results. Our own multiyear, building-level study found no match between additional dollars and better results on 27 of 28 different measures of academic achievement.

It’s not that money doesn’t matter in education. How resources are used can make a tremendous difference. Yet without dramatic changes to the education system, most new money will not be spent in meaningful ways.

But serious conversations about how dollars are spent must begin with a clearer understanding of current funding levels.