Could Michigan get a new school funding model?
If you've been following State of Opportunity for a while, you've probably heard us say this a few times now: our state constitution legally promises all Michigan kids a "free" education, but it says nothing about that education being "adequate" or "equitable."
Here's the exact language:
Sec. 2. The Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin.
Can't get much blander or broader that that.
And there's a reason state constitutions use such broad language: as the ACLU discovered last year, it's harder to sue a state for equity or quality in education when you only promise that it's free. Does your kid go to school for free? Check. Legal requirements met.
If, on the other hand, the constitution promises an education that's "adequate" or "equitable," the state opens itself up to lawsuits from folks who say what they're getting does not meet those (albeit squishy) terms.
But next year we could get a little more clarity.
Last spring, the state commissioned a so-called "adequacy" study to figure out what it actually costs to appropriately educate a child in Michigan and the results will be published next March.
Michigan is pretty late to the whole "adequacy study" game. We're one of only a handful of states that has not voluntarily opted to do one or been required to do one by the courts.
Here's what we know about the group doing the adequacy study. It's a firm from Denver, Colorado called Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA). According to the firm's website, it's worked with all 50 states in some capacity regarding school funding issues, and it's completed roughly 20 adequacy studies for states.
Here's what they say about their current Michigan Education Finance Study:
APA was awarded a contract by the state of Michigan as part of a competitive bidding process for the state’s Education Finance Study. The study team will be examining the revenues and expenditures of successful districts in the state, the equity of the state’s finance system, and the cost differences for non-instructional expenditures across regions of the state. Completion of the study is expected in March of 2016.
In a 2014 report published by APA, it shows that 38 of the 39 school funding studies it's conducted called for more money to be spent on a child's education, from "a low of $144 per pupil in New Jersey in 2006 to a high of over $5,000 per pupil in Montana in 2007." As Michigan State University's College of Education blog points out, "only a handful of these studies have resulted in any sort of implementation from states."
Revisiting Section 380.1281a, it is important to note that there is no language actually requiring Michigan to act upon the recommendations of the adequacy study. Based on the implementation track records of other states that have conducted similar studies, there is no reason to think that Michigan will voluntarily make sweeping changes to its funding system.
The blog authors add that the adequacy study findings could lead to more litigation "if APA deems Michigan’s funding system inadequate."
And keep in mind, this is not the first school funding study that's been conducted in this state.
The Upjohn Institute issued a report earlier this year calling for a "tweak" to the 20-year-old Proposal A funding model. It calls for several changes to the current school funding system, including more money for grades K-3 and 9-12, a "progressive funding structure for at-risk students" and four-year competitive grants for districts to implement highly effective interventions.
But wait, there's more. Public Sector Consultants put together a recent report looking at Michigan's education system and ways to change its funding structure, and Education Trust-Midwest issued a roadmap detailing what Michigan needs to do to improve educational outcomes for all students, including revised school funding formulas.
Maybe adding one more study from an out-of-town firm will be just the incentive the state needs to get down to business and overhaul the decades-old Proposal A funding structure once and for all.