News Story

School Funding Truth A Casualty Of Michigan Political Campaigns

‘Cuts to school budgets’ largely a political myth here

Political messages and stories making false claims about public school funding have become a staple of recent Michigan elections campaign. The current campaign season has seen articles repeating false narratives about cuts to Michigan’s K-12 school system and school districts in low-income communities being less well-funded than the average district.

Actual data from the Michigan Department of Education reveals both those claims to be false.

State Funding For K-12 Public Schools Has Increased Every Year During Gov. Rick Snyder’s Two Terms

Rick Snyder has signed eight annual state budgets, and every one of them has increased state spending on K-12 schools, according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

Snyder’s first school aid budget, in 2011-12, authorized spending $11.09 billion of state revenues on schools, which was up from $10.81 billion the previous year. The figures refer to state aid only; the state also passes through federal dollars that increase the totals.

The last school aid budget signed by Snyder is for the current (2018-19) school year, and it authorized spending $13.04 billion in state funds for K-12 education. That’s an increase of more than $2 billion from the last budget signed by his predecessor.

While the state has increased the amount it spends on schools, however, federal contributions diminished. In 2010-11, with a boost from then President Barack Obama’s stimulus spending program, federal dollars to Michigan public schools peaked at $2.18 billion. In the current state school budget, the amount from Washington is down to $1.72 billion.

Schools in Poor Urban Communities Get More Money Than Schools in More Affluent Places

Being in a poor city doesn’t mean that a school is poorly funded.

In fact, the less affluent urban communities get significantly more for their schools than more affluent suburban communities, due to additional state and federal dollars devoted to districts with a higher percentage of students considered “economically disadvantaged.”

The neighboring towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph illustrate this point. According census figures, the median household income of St. Joseph averaged $55,854 annually from 2012-2016, and 8.8 percent of residents had incomes below the federal poverty line. In Benton Harbor, the median household income was $18,962 with 49.2 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

Yet, Benton Harbor Area Schools received $5,303 more per pupil for operations than St. Joseph Public Schools in the 2016-17 school year, the most recent year for with these figures are available from the state. Benton Harbor schools received $14,292 per pupil, while St. Joseph got $8,989. These numbers refer to local, state and federal money for the district’s general fund, which pays for regular operating expenses including payroll.

Schools in the poorer community of Benton Harbor get more per student because extra dollars are allocated by both the state and federal governments to school districts with a higher percentage of “at-risk” students, defined as those from lower income households. Benton Harbor received $2,932 per pupil in federal dollars compared to just $90 federal dollars per student in St. Joseph in 2016-17.

The per-pupil average for state aid to school districts’ general fund budgets was $9,910 in 2016-17, while communities with lower average household incomes received substantially more than the state average. Examples include public school districts in Flint ($20,166), Pontiac ($15,402), Detroit ($14,754), and Lansing ($13,371).

Despite the Extra Money, School Budgets are Squeezed by Skyrocketing Pension Costs

Chippewa Valley Schools, a large district in a middle-class Macomb County community, had to contribute $23.86 million in 2017 to the Michigan Public Schools Employees Retirement System. In 2011, Chippewa Valley’s contribution to the under-funded state-run system was only $9.60 million.

The Macomb County district had general fund revenues of $135.62 million in 2011. This grew to $150.83 million in 2017, but when Chippewa Valley’s additional pension expense is deducted, and after adjusting for inflation, the district had the equivalent of about $11 million less in 2017 than it did in 2011. The additional $14.26 million in pension costs wiped out the district’s increases in real, after-inflation revenue over that six-year period.