News Story

Which Comes First, The Kids’ Futures Or Their School District’s?

At Benton Harbor and elsewhere, some school establishment voices can seem to lose sight

Michigan State University Professor David Arsen was featured in a recent Washington Post story about the public school establishment's efforts to boost school funding and opposition to school choice. In particular, Arsen expressed a worry about a Michigan law allowing parents to take their children out of the fiscally and academically failed Benton Harbor school district, and place them instead in nearby school districts. His concern? The law could damage recovery prospects for the Benton Harbor Area Schools.

Notably, Arsen ignored the reverse side of the debate, which is that children removed from the troubled district have almost certainly received a better education.

In other words, the state’s “Schools of Choice” law should not be scorned as a problem for Benton Harbor. Rather, it has enabled thousands of Benton Harbor children to escape the failed school district and obtain a significantly better education elsewhere.

That’s not speculation, but something that is based on an analysis of student performance at the nearby Berrien County school districts that Benton Harbor parents have chosen over their home district. This is allowed under the state law that lets parents place their children in a nearby school district if it has open seats.

Arsen gave the Washington Post this explanation for why he thinks Benton Harbor school finances have suffered: “They’ve lost enrollment terrifically. Their primary financial problems are fundamentally due to the loss of enrollment. That’s why they’re in trouble.”

In Michigan, the largest part of school funding follows the student to whichever district he or she attends. Benton Harbor Area Schools enrolled just 1,941 students in the 2018-19 school year, a stunning decline of 164% from the 5,127 students enrolled 16 years earlier, in 2002-03.

But in his remarks, Arsen ignored where those students have gone and the quality of education they are receiving.

For example, he didn't mention the F grade that all three of the schools in the Benton Harbor district were assigned by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s school report card. The report card compares Michigan schools to each other after adjusting for the different socioeconomic backgrounds of each school’s student body. This adjustment allows the actual educational value added by different schools serving different kinds of students to be compared, given that children from low-income backgrounds face greater academic challenges.

Last year, 1,515 students resided in the city of Benton Harbor and were sent by their parents to another regular district within the Berrien County Intermediate School District, as allowed by state law.

While all three Benton Harbor schools received an F on the Mackinac Center report card, just one of the 21 schools operated by those other seven school districts received an F. Here’s a summary: five received an A, 10 received a B, four received a C, one was given a D and one was given an F.

So while Arsen is correct that parents are removing children from Benton Harbor schools, and this damage the district’s financial prospects, the opportunity is almost certainly causing those children to get a better education.

The flip side of this dynamic is almost as startling: Not one Berrien County parent who lived outside Benton Harbor in 2018-19 chose to remove their child from one of those other seven districts and place the child in a Benton Harbor school.

A similar pattern applies to the financial consequences for the school districts involved. Under Michigan’s school funding system, most of the state funding follows the student. So, the Berrien County districts that managed to add more academic value get more students and more taxpayer dollars. But the school district that has failed to balance its books and failed to add academic value gets fewer students and dollars.

Michael Van Beek, the director of research at the Mackinac Center, gave some examples of how Benton Harbor students represent an important revenue source to school districts whose students are doing much better academically.

Eau Claire Public Schools has three schools, of which two earned an A and one earned a B in the Mackinac Center report card. That district has 333 students from the city of Benton Harbor, making up 44 percent of its entire student body of 754.

St. Joseph Public Schools four schools received four Bs and a C on the Mackinac Center report card. In the most recent school year, the district enrolled 414 students from Benton Harbor, or 14% of its total of 2,989 students.

Arsen did not respond to an email seeking comment.