STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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What kind of education do you get if you spend $12,000 per student?

The vast majority of Michigan K-12 schools get between $7,000 - $8,000 per pupil every year. But there are some schools that get more…a lot more. We're talking about roughly a $5,000 difference between the richest schools in the state and the poorest schools.

When it comes to per pupil funding, is there a magic number?

When it comes to per pupil funding, we've got about a $5,000 spread between the richest and poorest schools in Michigan. So I called up Craig Thiel at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan to ask him if there's a "magic number" for how much it takes to educate a child in Michigan.

"The quick answer is no," says Thiel.

He says other states have come up with a number, but more often than not it's because they were forced to as a result of a court challenge. "The state of Michigan hasn’t been required to do an adequacy study," explains Thiel, "so we don’t know what it costs to deliver a basic public education in Michigan."

What do you get for a top-dollar education?

Pierce Elementary looks like it could be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's a beautiful, two-story brick building on a picturesque side street lined with leafy trees. Some parents walk their kids to school, others drive up in shiny SUVs and BMWs to drop them off. The students, most of whom are white,  roam the halls in the latest pre-teen fashions, their initials embroidered on their backpacks. The free and reduced lunch population hovers around 7%.

The kids at Pierce might now know it, but they’re some of the lucky ones. Through a combination of state and local money, Birmingham Public Schools spends nearly $12,000 on each one of its students, one of the highest per pupil dollar amounts in the state.

Nathan Cohen is the first to admit how fortunate he feels to teach in this district. He's taught in Birmingham his entire career, 13 years so far.

"We’re given all of the materials we need to teach," says Cohen. "We’re given the books, workbooks, ipads, laptops, we have printers in each room. With the use of the interactive board, we can read [and] write on the interactive board as a class."

And that’s not all $11,804 dollars per pupil gets you. It also gets you smaller class sizes.

Debbie Piesz is the district’s assistant superintendent for business services. She says their average class size in the lower elementary grades is 22-24 kids, and the higher grades it's 26-28. Some districts have as many as 30-40 kids in a class, which Piesz calls a real "issue."

In addition to small class sizes and better technology in the classroom, Piesz says having more money allows them to hire more folks to help students who are struggling.

"It's the support services to lower the achievement gap, and reduce those numbers who need reading support or math support. That’s what you get for the extra amount of money...the additional amount of support services to be successful."

The perks don't stop there. At Pierce Elementary, where I visited, there's an indoor climbing wall in the gym, and enough individual electronic keyboards for all students in a music class to use. Kids in Birmingham also take music, art, gym, and band. They start to learn Spanish in second grade, way before most other districts. And the students have some of the highest test scores in the state.

It's a much different picture at the bottom end of the per pupil ladder

The poorest districts spend about $7,000 per pupil, most of it from state and federal sources. These districts tend to have overcrowded classrooms, hardly any fancy technology, and some of the lowest test scores in the state.

Often the students in these districts live in poverty, and teachers get paid on average tens of thousands of dollars less than their counterparts in districts like Birmingham. (You can hear what a school that receives about $7,500 sounds like in our recent documentary, The Education Gap.)

So back to that "magic number" question...

As Craig Thiel with the Citizens Research Council pointed out, we don't know how much money it takes to educate a child in Michigan, but he says it would be worth it for the state to figure out what that “magic number” is in terms of per pupil funding.

"An examination would yield a result that might put political pressure on policy makers to raise taxes to fund education or to move dollars from other areas of the budget into education," says Thiel.

But he admits that kind of study is unlikely. After all, that magic number could be more than the $7,000 per student most Michigan schools get now.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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