Underfunded? Detroit Is State's 15th Best Funded Larger School District

Gets less from some sources and more from others

In 2018-19, the Detroit Public Schools Community District received $15,891 per pupil (including local, state and federal money), making its total funding the 15th highest among Michigan school districts that enroll 1,000 or more students.

The state average per student revenue for all 827 school districts and charter schools that year was $13,457 per pupil.

That means per-pupil funding at Detroit’s school district was 18% higher than the average Michigan school district.

Yet, there has been an ongoing effort in the media to make it appear Detroit’s school district is underfunded.

The latest example comes in the form of a Q&A between Crain’s Detroit Business and Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Here is the exchange in which Crain’s Senior Editor Chad Livengood asked Vitti about school funding:

“Livengood: I always look at Southfield as an example of this — a neighboring district to you, they get $11,300 per kid, you get less than $8,200 from the school aid formula and you are in competition (for students) with Southfield, I would imagine.

Vitti: Yeah, that's one of the better examples …”

Total revenue to Southfield Public School District of $17,352 per pupil in 2018-19 made it the fifth most highly funded Michigan school district of more than 1,000 students.

Pointing to a state “foundation allowance” that is just one of the revenue streams flowing into Michigan school districts, not total funding, Livengood said he “always” looks to compare Detroit to one of the state’s best-funded districts.

Southfield has a higher “foundation allowance” amount due to the complex formula created by a 1994 voter-approved school funding reform ballot measure called Proposal A. This created a system that raised-up the funding level of districts that collect less property tax without punishing a small group of so-called “hold harmless” districts that get more revenue from that source.

Ben DeGrow, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy director of education policy, described hold-harmless districts this way:

“Before Michigan adopted its current school funding system in 1994, school districts across the state heavily depended on local property taxes that led to wide funding disparities. Proposal A limited local districts’ ability to raise property taxes and created a broader pool of state tax funds that put districts on a more equal footing for per-pupil funding. The negotiations to create Proposal A included a deal that the highest-funded districts could be held harmless from having to cut their per-pupil allocation by being able to raise additional property taxes. Over the last 25 years, lawmakers have regularly increased the minimum foundation allowance at a faster rate, which has significantly closed the district funding gap. In 2019-20, three-fourths of the state’s 537 conventional districts and all of its 294 charter schools received the same foundation allowance of $8,111, while only 43 districts could still collect extra property taxes to receive more than the hold-harmless rate of $8,409.”

Local school property tax levies bring in less to the Detroit district because property in the city is worth less. So narrow comparisons of just this revenue stream between Detroit and the handful of districts with a very rich tax base can make Detroit school funding appear subpar.

Detroit schools are well funded because as a matter of deliberate policy they get a larger share of other revenue streams. The recent allocation of the federal COVID-19 aid to school districts illustrates this policy.

Southfield was approved for $1,384,613 of the state’s federal coronavirus money, or $240 per pupil. Detroit’s school district was approved for $85,120,566 of COVID-19 relief, or $1,707 per pupil.

That $1,467 per pupil funding gap is one of several where Detroit received more federal money than Southfield.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.