Editorial

Magazine’s Description Of Michigan School Funding 24 Years Out Of Date

Wealth of community not the biggest factor in how much schools get

A recent story in The Atlantic magazine about private versus public schools used examples from Michigan to illustrate some of its arguments, but was significantly out of date.

In particular, author Julie Halpert focused on Michigan’s Bloomfield Hills school district. In one section she says, “With a tax base bolstered by one of Detroit’s wealthiest suburbs, Bloomfield Hills High is the kind of public-school districts elsewhere would only dream of having. ...”

ForTheRecord says: At least when it comes to Michigan, the author’s suggestion that schools in affluent communities gets more overall funding than those that are poorer towns is not true. The statement that Bloomfield Hills’ schools get a level of funding that “public school districts elsewhere would only dream of having” calls for a closer examination.

Bloomfield Hills is a rare exception in the Michigan school funding system that emerged from a comprehensive overhaul as a result of the 1994 Proposal A ballot measure. Before voters approved that proposal, local property taxes provided the majority of school funding, which created large spending disparities between schools in rich and poor communities. Proposal A created a new system that reduced the disparities by combining local and state tax revenue in a complex per-pupil funding source called the “foundation allowance.”

One of the challenges that Proposal A’s bipartisan creators met was to craft a formula that increased funding for schools in poorer districts while holding harmless the funding levels of richer districts. The latter came to be known as “hold harmless” districts — including Bloomfield Hills.

Bloomfield Hills Schools received $15,927 per pupil for operating expenses in 2016-17, including local, state and federal dollars. While this gives it one of the highest general fund budgets of any school system in the state, several districts that are from far less affluent communities are not far from that funding level.

Flint Community Schools, for example, actually received more funding on a per-pupil basis in 2016-17 than Bloomfield Hills. Flint received $20,166 per pupil for its operating expenses in 2016-17. The Michigan Department of Education said that about $4,200 of that $20,166 was meant to address the water crisis. But even without that extra revenue, Flint schools received $39 more per pupil than Bloomfield Hills schools in 2016-17.

The Pontiac City School District’s general fund received $15,402 per pupil in 2016-17. And the Detroit school district received $14,754 per pupil.

Schools in these poor communities received significantly more money than other “hold harmless” school districts, not counting Bloomfield Hills. For example, the Troy School District received $11,345 per pupil in 2016-17 for operating expenses, $4,057 less than Pontiac.

The reason Michigan’s poorer urban school districts are funded at comparatively high levels is they generally get millions more in federal funding based on the number of students who come from low- income households.