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Article of Interest - Michigan

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Bridges4Kids LogoSchools Want Education Funding Study
by Christine MacDonald, The Detroit News, June 9, 2004
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Experts say push to determine funding adequacy spurred by tight budgets, No Child Left Behind Act

School superintendents, who say they’ve been crippled by continued state funding cuts, are pushing Michigan to pin down just how much money it takes to educate its children.

It’s called an adequacy study, and it is likely to accelerate the debate over whether Michigan’s school funding system is working.

The review also could become a key piece of evidence if a school district moves to challenge the state in court. Some experts say the study is likely to find that schools are underfunded, particularly urban schools such as Detroit.

If that’s the case, it could kick off the type of funding fights the country is seeing play out in more than two dozen states and has resulted in a major overhaul in the way several fund schools.

“Education is just another line item in the budget and subject to the whims of the Legislature,” said Anthony Adams, Detroit Public Schools general counsel, who has been researching a possible lawsuit against the state Board of Education to force it to do the study. “We need the state to step up to the plate and determine what adequate funding is.”

Detroit and superintendents across the state argue their state funding is too low at a time of heavy pressure to meet new national testing standards. Many school officials fault Proposal A — the 1994 ballot proposal that shifted school financing from the local property tax to the sales tax — because it is vulnerable to downturns in the economy.

In May, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education — which together represent 560 districts — passed a resolution encouraging the state to start the review, which could cost up to $1 million. The Detroit school district has pushed for it for months, as it grapples with a $78 million shortfall this year and plans to lay off more than 3,200.

But others argue tough budget times have meant cuts for everyone and that schools should concentrate on making sure they are spending their money efficiently. Michigan ranked 14th nationwide in per-pupil spending — at $8,489 — for the 2001-02 school year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You can always make the argument for spending more money,” said Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland. “If the state had more money, the schools would get it.”

While Michigan is just starting the debate over whether to start an adequacy study, 31 other states have gone through their own, said Steve Smith, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s a trend nationwide in school financing lawsuits, which have moved away from arguing that all school districts should be equally funded to challenging that states aren’t funding schools adequately as guaranteed in their constitutions. Twenty-five states are in court over school funding fights and involve these adequacy arguments, Smith said.

Experts say tight budgets and tough new standards for schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are fueling the adequacy arguments.

Michigan’s school funding base has been stagnant — at about $6,700 per student. Districts saw a $74 cut to that funding in November.

But some school officials are hesitant about the study because it has the potential to divide districts. It likely would break down the costs to educate different kids — including urban and suburban youth. Detroit argues it needs more money because it has more poor and disabled children, and costs to recruit teachers and maintain older buildings are higher. Detroit does get extra federal and state money for its at-risk kids, but it says the funding isn’t enough.

“I worry that it might start pitting one district against the other,” said New Haven Superintendent James Avery.

The stagnant state funding and increasing health care and retirement costs have resulted in teacher layoffs across Metro Detroit.

Raaed Albaiaty of Detroit worries the district will lay off too many bilingual teachers. A bilingual first-grade teacher helped his Arabic-speaking daughter, Noor, strengthen her English tremendously this year, he said.

“See how many kids they are going to fail in school because they have no knowledge,” Albaiaty said. “This is the future of America.”

State Superintendent Tom Watkins said he’d support an adequacy study as long as it’s independently done.

Plymouth-Canton Superintendent Jim Ryan said he welcomes it as well, calling it a fresh approach.

“It’s another important piece of trying to figure out the funding problems we have now,” Ryan said.

Smith said similar studies in other states typically find that 20 percent to 40 percent more state funding is needed.

But he said of the 31 states that have had such studies, only four actually intend or have bumped up funding by the recommended amount.

Detroit Public Schools legal staff have been researching a possible lawsuit for the last six months, but CEO Kenneth Burnley said last week he is not contemplating filing one.

Whether it’s through the courts or politically, the study has the potential to change the funding system, experts say.

“It’s highly probable this could go somewhere, and it would be significant for Michigan education,” said Phil Kearney, a retired University of Michigan professor and a school finance expert.

But an adequacy lawsuit claiming that Michigan isn’t fulfilling its funding obligation likely wouldn’t go too far because the education clause in the state constitution is weaker than in other states, where lawsuits have been successful, said David Plank, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

But he said the study’s results could be compelling evidence if it finds large disparities between districts’ needs and their resources. “The pressure will simply build, and the likely outcome is a court case at some point,” Plank said.

School adequacy review

School superintendents across the state are encouraging Michigan to start a review of how much money it takes to educate children. Detroit and other urban districts argue they need more money, because they have more poor and disabled children and their costs to recruit teachers and maintain older buildings are higher. The review could cost up to $1 million. Should the state government undertake this study? To cast your vote, visit


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