News Story

Michigan Schools Serving Poor Cities Get More Funding

An inconvenient fact for some public school interests

According to the education news site Chalkbeat, a professor at Wayne State University recently said that urban school districts don’t get enough money.

Thomas Pedroni, a curriculum studies professor in the College of Education at Wayne State University, made the statement in a discussion about the struggles of Benton Harbor Area Schools. In the city of Benton Harbor, 48% of the residents fall below the federal poverty level.

Chalkbeat reported, “Pedroni says the struggles of urban districts have been worsened by state policies that allow students to leave for other districts, by a relentless focus on test scores, and by a funding system that doesn’t adequately account for the challenges of educating poor students.”

Media reports and school administrators often state, erroneously, that Michigan school districts serving low-income populations get less money than wealthier districts. But when all funding sources are considered — including additional state and federal dollars earmarked for “at-risk students” — a different picture emerges. Michigan’s urban districts in lower-income areas get more dollars per student than districts in more affluent suburbs.

“Yes, I am accounting for those,” Pedroni said in an email, referring to the extra “at-risk” state dollars and federal money. “Beyond those, recent education finance studies in our state would indicate that funding is still not where it should be given actual student needs.”

One of those school funding studies, which is often described as an adequacy study, was conducted by a group called the School Finance Research Collaborative. Most members of that collaborative represent interests aligned with the public school establishment. Its 2018 study said, “The base per-pupil cost to educate a regular education K-12 student in Michigan is $9,590, which does not include transportation, food service or capital costs, and only includes pension costs at 4.6% of wages.”

But school districts in Michigan get far more than $9,590 per student once all local, state and federal dollars are counted. And urban school districts receive even more per-pupil funding than those in more affluent suburbs.

For example, in the 2017-18 school year, the school district serving the residents of Benton Harbor received more revenue per pupil than the one serving Grosse Pointe residents. (The median household income in the Benton Harbor district is $20,157, and 48% of the people are below the federal poverty line. In the case of Grosse Pointe, the median income is $95,887 and 3.7% of the residents are below the poverty line.)

According to the National Public Education Finance Survey, Benton Harbor schools received $15,242 for each student in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. Of this, $4,289 came from local taxpayers, $7,434 from state taxpayers, and $3,519 from federal taxpayers.

At Grosse Pointe schools, the per-pupil total was $14,631, with $4,745 from local sources, $9,726 from the state, and $160 from federal taxpayers.

The Benton Harbor district had higher revenue than its affluent Berrien County neighbor, St. Joseph Public Schools ($12,745 per pupil). It also had more revenue than the district serving the affluent Oakland County community of West Bloomfield ($15,217 per pupil).

The urban districts serving poorer communities get more in per-pupil funding because Title I federal funds go to school districts whose student bodies have a higher proportion of children living in low-income households.

While Benton Harbor received $3,519 per pupil in federal aid, districts in the three affluent communities cited here all received far fewer federal dollars: $160 at Grosse Pointe, $420 at West Bloomfield and $241 at St. Joseph.