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How much does it cost to educate a student in Michigan? We'll soon have an answer

Jan 13, 2016

Curtis Metheny (left) and Alex Muraviou come up with their own calculations for what it costs per year to education a student in Michigan.
Credit Nick Azzaro / Ypsilanti Community Schools

This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s worth repeating: we have no idea – as a state – how much it costs to adequately educate a child in Michigan. Most states have done so-called “adequacy studies,” but Michigan hasn’t. Until now. We’ve got a new school funding study underway. But before we get to the nitty gritty details about what goes into the study, let's ask some students how much they think it costs to educate one child per year in Michigan. 

Curtis Metheny and Alex Muraviou are both third graders at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti. I tell them the premise of the story and they run through all the possible costs they can think of when it comes to teaching kids - colored pencils, notebooks, good teachers, recess equipment, musical instruments, etc. After some intense math involving subtraction, addition and multiplication, they each come up with their own number:

Curtis: $590 per year per student

Alex: $2,500 per year per student

"Who's closer?" asks Curtis. It’s a safe bet to say Alex, but honestly we don’t know. The Michigan legislature ponied up $500,000 last year to to figure it out. 

They hired Augenblick Palaich and Associates, or APA. It’s a consulting firm that’s done dozens of school funding studies for states across the country. 

The folks at Michigan State University's College of Education blog put together this primer on adequacy studies and APA's role in conducting them:

Adequacy studies are often conducted in school finance cases, as well as at the request of state legislatures and other interest groups. A recent report by APA examined 39 adequacy studies and found that there are four main approaches used to determine just how much a district or state ought to spend on its students: 

  • Successful Schools/Districts Approach – spending levels in successful schools and districts determine how much others should spend
  • Cost Function Method – calculations are made to estimate how much money is needed to reach certain learning standards while controlling for district and student characteristics
  • Professional Judgment Technique – a panel of education professionals make recommendations on what is needed to ensure all students meet certain learning objectives
  • Evidence-Based Model – education research findings inform spending and program design

Justin Silverstein is heading up the Michigan study from his office in Colorado. He and his team aren't coming to Michigan to visit any classrooms or interview teachers. Instead, they're wading through tons of data to find the answer. They're using the "successful schools" model, which  means they're only going to look at data from the most successful districts in the state; districts that are performing at or above the state average on tests.

"How are they spending funds? Where are they getting revenues? So we’re trying to get a real good picture of the fiscal realities for those districts," explains Silverstein.

He’ll also look at how much those successful districts spend on students considered at-risk, including students with special needs and students in poverty. Silverstein and his team will also take into consideration geography; is it more expensive to teach in certain parts of the state versus others? 

APA is also sending out surveys to CFOs in the successful districts to get a better understanding of how they allocated funds for their at-risk student populations. 

Right now, most Michigan districts get around $7,300 per student per year in foundation money from the state, though a few districts in the state get as much as $12,000 per student.

Perhaps not surprisingly, almost every single study Silverstein’s firm has done has found that states need to spend more money in order for all students to have an equal shot at academic success, and at-risk student populations need more resources. But a lot of times states get back their adequacy studies and do nothing with them.

"Obviously as the researcher you believe you’ve done your best job, and you hope that there’s value to what you've done and it could really help students in the state" says Silverstein. "At the same time I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I understand there's a lot of fiscal realities for states and a lot of political realities for states, and they face really tough decisions. So having good information doesn't mean you can get change done right away."

Brian Whiston, Michigan's superintendent of schools, hopes the state legislature takes the APA report seriously. "Well certainly if the legislature spent the several hundred thousand dollars to do the study, then I would hope we’d look at the study and understand the results of the study and use that to help us have a conversation."

Yes, he says, there have been other school funding studies from groups in the state, but this is "the only one that comes from the legislature, though, so hopefully with the legislature initiating this study they'll have some ownership in it and they'll look at the parts that make sense and hopefully implement them."

We're still waiting to hear what APA's recommendations are. The Colorado firm was supposed to submit its findings at the end of March, but wasn't able to meet the deadline. A new deadline of May 13 has been issued.