Inequality​ ​in​ ​Michigan​ ​public​ ​schools

Editor’s note: Eric-John Szczepaniak is the chair of the Grand Valley State University student senate educational affairs committee and treasurer of Kenowa Hills Public Schools Board of Education. The opinions expressed in this piece are Szczepaniak’s own.  

How much money does it take to educate a child? Every child is unique, and there is no gold standard for what their education is worth. Throughout the history of public schools in this nation, this has been the great unanswered question. Public schools are meant to provide the same basic education to the general public. But this is virtually impossible to do under Michigan’s current funding module, as gigantic disparities exist between dollar values that K-12 public school districts receive in per-pupil funding from the state. 

There is a common misunderstanding out there about the dollar amount given to various school districts. Many believe that the state of Michigan gives each local district the same amount of per-pupil funding and that disparities exist because some communities are just wealthier than others. There is a false belief out there that the dollar value is the same and that wealthy communities just donate more to the schools. This is not the case.

In 1994, Michigan voters approved Proposal A, which defined how we now fund public schools in the state. This ballot initiative relies heavily on property value and locked in funding based on the property value of the school districts in 1994. There are now what we call “baseline districts,” for which the State appropriates $7,631 per student per year (also known as the foundation allowance), and there are other districts that receive incrementally more depending on how good their local economy and property taxes were in 1994. 

This is not a Grand Rapids Public Schools issue. This is not a Detroit Public Schools issue. This is a statewide issue for school districts large and small in urban, suburban and country settings. In Kent County, Michigan, most of the 20 school districts receive the minimum foundation allowance of $7,631. Even though the Grand Rapids region is now the fastest-growing region in the state, Grand Rapids 1 Public Schools and most of its neighboring districts will continue to receive the baseline value each year. 

In Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham (both in Oakland County), the foundation allowance sits at just over $12,000 per student per year. It’s no wonder that public schools in Michigan 2 produce vastly different graduates from our schools. Take, for example, my district, Kenowa Hills Public Schools in Kent County. We have around 3,000 students. If we were receiving the same amount of money that those two in Oakland were receiving, we would roughly have an additional $13 million per year.

So what is being done about it? I wish I had more to say in this portion of the article. There is a program now dubbed “2X.” In this program, for every $1 the state gives to the highest-earning schools, they will give $2 to all the “baseline” districts. So, no need to worry; if the legislature keeps funding schools at this rate, we will catch up in another 50 years.

We must demand better than this funding model. There are statewide tests that we all take. There are requirements that every school must meet. There are third graders set to be held back if literacy rates are not met, regardless of the school’s per-pupil revenue. By doing nothing, we assure at minimum another 50 years of huge disparities in our public schools, and we do an injustice to students everywhere.