News Story

Spending Interests Wrong: Schools in Low-Income Areas Get More, Not Less

Media keeps repeating advocates’ misrepresentations

Some public school officials and school spending interests often claim that urban districts in Michigan with a heavy concentration of low-income students get less per-student funding than those in more affluent communities.

The argument is not supported by numbers available from the Michigan Department of Education, yet multiple media outlets have reported these claims as if they were correct.

Urban school districts with higher populations of students considered “economically disadvantaged” [as indicated by eligibility for free or reduced lunch programs] get extra state and federal dollars to help deal with the socioeconomic backgrounds of their students.

Those additional revenue sources are typically ignored in the ongoing debates about school funding in Michigan. This is most often done by focusing on just one source of school revenue, called the foundation allowance. The per-pupil foundation allowance is based on a complex formula that combines both state and local tax revenue.

The foundation allowance for the Detroit Public Schools Community District was $7,670 per pupil in 2017-18, far less than the $9,984 per student in Grosse Pointe Public Schools. But when all sources of funding are included (local, state and federal), the Detroit gets significantly more money per pupil - nearly $2,000 more. This represents school “general fund” money that pays for ongoing operational expenses, including teacher salaries.

The Detroit district gets $30.7 million in state funding for “at-risk” students. It also receives $470,000 extra for students who are learning English as a second language.

Those are two reasons why its general fund received $14,754 per pupil in 2016-17 in local, state and federal dollars, far more than the state average of $9,910 per pupil, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Federal funding also plays a role. School districts with higher proportions of economically disadvantaged students get federal money through Title I grants.

For example, according to the Michigan Department of Education, the average school district’s general fund received $468 per pupil in federal dollars.

Flint received $3,394 per student in federal dollar funds. Other districts with proportionately more students from low-income households received significant amounts of federal funds on a per-pupil basis. These included Beecher ($3,518), Detroit ($2,574) and Pontiac ($2,256).

According to the Michigan Department of Education, the additional funding means that school districts with less-affluent student bodies are better funded than districts in wealthy suburbs.

So while Detroit Public Schools Community District’s general fund received $14,743 per pupil for all funds, Grosse Pointe Public Schools received $12,783 per pupil.

Nevertheless, the inaccurate reporting and false claims that urban districts face inequitable funding persist.

Among the more recent claims are those of John B. King Jr., the former U.S. secretary of education who now works for Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for higher public school spending.

King was quoted in an article in The Detroit News about a panel convened to discuss equitable school funding.

“That is about more dollars, more dollars equitably distributed so they are getting to the highest-need students and a thoughtful approach to accountability and investments in teacher preparation, teacher support, improving the teaching of reading, improving services to English language learners,” King said.

King didn’t respond to an email asking for a response to state data that shows urban schools with poorer students receive more money.

Michigan media outlets routinely repeat the claims about the lack of funding equity without publishing actual financial data to back it up.

The Detroit News and Chalkbeat, a nonprofit funded by special interests that favor higher school spending, recently quoted similar claims coming from the head of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The Detroit News wrote on Jan. 16: “Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, was a panelist at the event and heard King’s remark about the possibility of an educational grand bargain for Michigan.”

“Vitti said any grand bargain should include a fair and consistent accountability system and more equitable funding that uses a weighted student formula, which provides extra funding above a base level.”

Writing about a similar event in a Dec. 6 story on its own website, Chalkbeat made similar statements:

“A simple question about lobbying lawmakers for equitable school funding produced a standout moment in an otherwise civil discussion about the state of schools in Detroit.”

“Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said any grand bargain for Michigan must include large investments in early education through third grade, more resources for high-poverty schools and more support for teachers and their practice.”

The Chalkbeat item also claimed there is a wide gap in funding between Michigan districts with poorer students and ones with more students from a affluent households:

“School funding in Michigan has been a hot topic this year as lawmakers have been pushed to fix the formula for funding schools and make it fair and equitable for all students. Currently, a wide gap exists between the lowest-funded districts and the highest, and there have been increased calls to allocate more money for students with bigger needs. That includes students from low-income homes, students still learning English, and students with special education needs.”

Actual state of Michigan financial records do indicate a “wide gap” – but in the opposite direction of what Chalkbeat and other school spending interests claim.