Analysis

Warning: Michigan School Finance Is Complicated

It’s also confusing, and spending interests often don’t tell the whole story

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said that education will be a focus of her first State of the State address on Feb. 12.

Whitmer spoke often about education during her successful campaign for governor. In some cases, she was repeating inaccurate talking points, arguing that school funding has been reduced in Michigan.

“But over the past eight years, Republicans in Lansing have sided with Betsy DeVos to push an education agenda that included slashing school funding,” Whitmer’s campaign website stated.

Whitmer will probably make a case for more school funding in her upcoming address. This is a complicated area of state government, and members of the public school establishment often paint a picture of a system under fiscal duress. In the coming days, Michigan Capitol Confidential will explain three examples of incomplete or inaccurate information: a focus on just one source of school funding; fact-free claims concerning equitable funding; and the claim that “Michigan is dead last in funding.” Today’s article will address the first example.

Focus exclusively on school “foundation allowance” money

School districts received more from the state every year from 2011-12 through 2018-19.

Yet media reports related to school funding often imply that a stream of money called the foundation allowance is the only source of money that schools receive, and not just one portion of their total revenue. Each district’s per-pupil allowance is different from that of others because the figure is based on a complicated formula of local and state tax revenue. Total foundation allowance amounts received by a school district also rise and fall as enrollment increases or declines, because this money follows the student under Michigan’s system of school finance.

Though the foundation allowance is important, schools receive other, substantial, revenue streams.

In spite of this, many public school administrators, union officials and media outlets cite only foundation allowance figures when discussing school funding.

For example, a Jan. 23 Detroit News article reported: “The state is poised to spend $8,409 per pupil this year under the 2019 budget signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder, which increased that rate and overall K-12 spending.”

The $8,409 per pupil is the projected per-pupil state foundation allowance for the year. Reporting just this figure is misleading, though. That’s because even as the per-student foundation allowance has been stagnant for a number of years, increases in other school revenue streams mean that total state spending on K-12 schools has actually increased by billions of dollars .

For example, in 2010-11 the minimum per-pupil foundation allowance for most school districts was $7,316. In the current school year (2018-19), the amount was $7,871. When stated in 2018 dollars, the 2010-11 school foundation allowance was $8,234 per pupil, meaning schools are getting the equivalent of $363 less in foundation allowance funding for each student, when compared to eight years ago.

Does that mean school districts are getting $363 less per pupil today, after adjusting for inflation?

The answer is no, and Detroit Public Schools Community District is a good example of why.

The Detroit district received foundation allowance payments of $7,660 per pupil in 2010-11, which is the equivalent of $8,621 if stated in current 2018 dollars. In the 2018-19 school year, the district’s foundation allowance is $7,906 per pupil, representing an $852 decline in inflation-adjusted terms.

But looking at the total amount of state dollars the Detroit district received from the state — including not only the foundation allowance but other funding streams as well — changes the picture. In 2010-11, the total amount of Detroit’s state funding was $7,599, or $8,552 if stated in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars. In the current school year, the state is giving the Detroit district $9,713 per pupil, representing not a decline but an increase of $1,161 in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.

Future editions of this series will examine two other features of Michigan’s school funding system that can also create a misleading portrayal of the financial status of Michigan public schools: claims about equitable funding and that “Michigan is dead last in funding.”