Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity
Testimony before the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee
Good afternoon members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 and thank you Sen. Camilleri for the invitation to testify.
We appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today about what Michigan can learn from leading education states’ school funding systems and how such models could make a significant difference in helping Michigan close opportunity gaps for all its students.
I am Alice Thompson, chair of the education committee of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, CEO of BFDI Educational Services, Inc., and former CEO of Black Family Development. I am joined by Amber Arellano who is the Executive Director of The Education Trust-Midwest. We are two of the three newly named chairs of The Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity coalition. Our third co-chair is Mike Jandernoa, a respected West Michigan corporate and philanthropic leader who is founder and chair of 42 North Partners and Policy Chair for the West Michigan Policy Forum. Today we are also joined by Jeff Cobb, Director of Government Affairs for The Education Trust-Midwest.
The Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity is a statewide coalition focused on advancing opportunity and improving learning outcomes for all of Michigan’s students, especially students who are most underserved, including Black and Latino students, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English learners, and students in rural and isolated districts.
Our partner organizations and members span Michigan’s diverse spectrum of civil rights, business, community-based non-profits, parent organizations and other sectors. We share a deep commitment to ensuring that every Michigan student has the opportunity to learn in a high-quality public school and receive the supports and resources that they need to fully realize their unique potential.
A high-quality public education is essential for both a healthy democracy and for flourishing in a globally competitive economy. Indeed, a strong education system is foundational to the American promise of self-realization — and the opportunity for every child to pursue their own American dream.
Yet today, Michigan’s K-12 education system is struggling to ensure that all children are truly well-prepared for post-secondary opportunities and success.
On the most recent national assessment, Michigan was ranked 43rd in the country for fourth grade reading.
For students from low-income backgrounds, Michigan’s performance was 11th worst in the country.
For Black students, the results are even more troubling. Michigan fell into the bottom five states for Black student performance, down from the bottom 10 in 2019.
These data matter not because of rankings, but because of what they mean in a child’s life. Consider that research shows that a child’s reading proficiency is a predictor not only of future academic success, but also of future employment success and lifetime earnings. It is the difference of preparing a child to succeed in our country — or not.
Consider what national data tell about how children in Detroit are learning compared to children in Boston, for example.
On the 2022 national assessment, Black students in Detroit scored 24 points below their peers in Boston, and the gap was even wider – 29 points, or almost three grade levels – for students from low-income backgrounds.
The differences between our state’s student learning outcomes and the outcomes of Massachusetts’ learning outcomes are not a reflection of Michigan children’s ability to learn at high levels. Indeed, all of our children – our Black and Latino children, our students from low-income backgrounds, our English learners, our students with disabilities — are just as bright and capable as the children of other states.
And to be sure, the reasons why one state flourishes while another state flounders or stagnates are complex. Massachusetts’ work on systems change over more than two decades has spanned from systemic reforms that range from effective teaching and school leadership; thoughtful work to ensure all students are provided instruction aligned with national standards; and a robust system of state leadership and oversight of the state’s charter schools.
Leading education states such as Massachusetts also demonstrate one of the most important systems of a healthy education eco-system: school funding. While money is not the only factor that matters in public education, it does matter, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. Multiple recent studies have found that increased spending in higher poverty districts has significant positive impacts on student outcomes and that additional resources tend to have a greater impact on students from low-income backgrounds than for their wealthier peers.
Michigan’s school funding system has been among the most underfunded in the nation, according to many reports in recent years. National research showed Michigan’s funding formula for decades served as one of the most regressive school funding formulas in the country.
Michigan State University found that between 1995 and 2015, Michigan had the lowest total education revenue growth of all 50 states. There are arguably no other students who have borne the burden of this lack of investment and support more than the state’s most underserved students: children from low-income backgrounds; English Learners and students with disabilities; children living in concentrated poverty; and students living in rural, isolated communities.
Michigan underfunds these groups of students at truly devastating levels. In a year-long analysis of national data, The Education Trust-Midwest found that although Michigan is one of many states that targets some additional dollars for students from low-income backgrounds, Michigan’s weight of 11.5% has been among the lowest in the country. That’s compared to states with similar types of funding systems. What’s more, the state had actually spent only about 9% more in the at-risk category for much of recent history.
But we also know far more needs to be done. Consider how devastatingly inequitable Michigan’s current public education funding system is:
STUDENTS FROM LOW-INCOME BACKGROUNDS
- Michigan’s school formula provides only about one tenth of the weight that leading states practice, and research indicates is needed, to close opportunity gaps for students from low-income backgrounds.
- Similarly, the level of additional funding that Michigan provides for English Learners is among the lowest in the country among states with similar systems. Michigan allocates only between about 1% and 11% more funding for English Learners (depending on their English language proficiency levels) than for students with English as their native language.
Research recommends English Learners receive at least twice as much funding as native English speakers to provide them with the additional instructional supports necessary for language acquisition.
Compared to states like Maryland, which is phasing in a weight of 85% more, and Georgia which now allocates 159% more funding to English Learners, Michigan’s investment in English Learners is startling low.
STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Michigan also chronically underfunds needed services for students with disabilities. Due to Michigan’s partial reimbursement system —which is uncommon compared to other states’ approaches to funding special education — Michigan districts shoulder much of the funding responsibility for students with disabilities but have varying capacities to cover these costs.
As a result, students with disabilities are shortchanged. An MSU study found that in order to fully cover special education costs, Michigan districts use more than $500 per pupil from general education funds, on average.
DISTRICTS WITH HIGH CONCENTRATIONS OF POVERTY
While other states intentionally allocate additional funds specifically for districts with high concentrations of students in poverty, Michigan does not have a funding mechanism to do so.
This is despite Michigan having among the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the country. Research indicates that schools and districts with particularly high concentrations of poverty face compounded challenges in helping their students succeed.
While Michigan does provide additional funding to rural and sparse districts, Michigan has been one of only twelve states that provides disproportionately less funding overall to rural districts compared to others in the state, according to a 2017 report. Rural and sparse districts often have higher resource and operating costs due to lacking economies of scale, increased transportation needs, and geographic isolation.
In Michigan, we have grown so accustomed to such grave inequities and achievement gaps between groups of students, our coalition believes Michiganders have become almost desensitized to these findings. It’s important to ground this conversation in the context of research and national best practices.
Over the last 10-15 years, a growing body of research has found that school funding systems need to be designed to meet the needs of each student. For students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, that means 100 percent to greater than 150 percent more funding in order to close opportunity gaps with their wealthier peers. And as we mentioned, research shows English Learners should receive 100 percent to 150 percent more funding in order to close opportunity gaps with native English speakers.
For example, we support much of the work of the School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC). Indeed, our recommendations — which were outlined in a letter to the legislature in December — build upon the important work of the SFRC. Our recommendations seek to strengthen that proposal in regard to equity and fairness for students who are underserved.
Importantly, our recommendations also are strongly informed by the work of the nation’s leading education states such as Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has actually been investing more in its underserved student populations since the mid-1990s, since its historic grand bargain. In return for dramatically higher standards of teaching and learning — combined with significantly improved systems of accountability and transparency — Massachusetts leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed to a massive overhaul of its funding system to both address funding disparities between Massachusetts’ wealthiest districts and its poorest districts, and to invest more overall.
Since then, Massachusetts has become the top performing state in the country. And remarkably, the Commonwealth State has continued to produce improvement over the long run, including for Black children and children from low-income backgrounds. It has demonstrated that all children can learn at high levels when supported at high levels.
The state’s success has spurred Massachusetts leaders to set even higher goals. Leveraging what research shows, in 2019 state leaders passed the Student Opportunity Act to further overhaul how the state funds its schools to address persistent opportunity gaps, particularly for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
Massachusetts’ landmark legislation now calls for investing up to two times as much money for students from low-income backgrounds in its highest-poverty school districts than students with no additional needs – or up to 101% more over a period of about seven years.
The state’s leaders aim to both close the gaps in performance between student groups who are underserved and affluent students, while also becoming the top performer for public education in the world. Massachusetts understands that there is no excellence without real equity.
So how does it work? Massachusetts created an “index” — that our coalition calls an “Opportunity Index” — that invests more based on the concentration of students from low-income backgrounds in the school district. Rather than funding a flat amount as Michigan does, Massachusetts created 12 levels of weights, which increase as a district’s poverty rate increases, so districts that fall in the highest poverty rate band receive the highest level of additional funding. This means the weight for students from low-income backgrounds ranges from 40% to 101%, depending upon how concentrated poverty is in a school district.
The result: Massachusetts strategically targets its funding for students from low-income backgrounds, helping to ensure students with the greatest needs get the support that they require to succeed.
Once Massachusetts fully phases in the newly adopted, transformative weights for students from low-income backgrounds, the state will spend approximately $8,800 additional dollars per pupil on students from low-income backgrounds, compared to the $1,052 of additional funding Michigan spent per pupil on students from low-income backgrounds last fiscal year.
If you think about it, this approach makes sense. After all, we know that living in a community with high concentrations of poverty matters. For instance, the experience of being a student from a low-income family in a more affluent community often is different than the experience of being low-income in a remote school in the Upper Peninsula or Lansing or living in one of the many Michigan communities that have faced significant disinvestment and the loss of thousands of jobs.
An opportunity index accounts for the differences in student experiences at different levels of poverty — no matter whether a student lives in a rural community, in a suburb or in a town. Additionally, it does so in a more cost-effective and efficient way—targeting resources to those who need them most rather than “across the board” increases for everyone.
We’d like to show you what it would look like if Michigan implemented a Massachusetts’ style funding model. Take, for example, three school districts around the state: Wayne-Westland, Mancelona and Grand Rapids. For each of these districts, we have estimated the per-pupil funding increase based on the current foundation allowance and using a Massachusetts-style Opportunity Index to account for concentrations of poverty.
As you can see, Wayne-Westland Community Schools would see a 39% increase or $3,845 per student. Mancelona Public Schools would receive 54% more funding, or $5,360 per student. And finally, Grand Rapids Public Schools would receive approximately 68% more funding, or an additional $6,787 per student.
Additional funding in all these districts could mean more support for educators. Districts with greater resources can provide additional support staff and instructional support, more competitive salaries and better resourced classrooms. Increased funding benefits educators and the students they serve. By one estimate, the lifetime earnings of Michigan’s current K-12 students could increase by $27 billion if their educational achievement matched the national average — just the average, not even a top state’s performance such as Massachusetts. This is an economic development strategy, not only a school improvement strategy.
WHAT WE CAN DO NOW
To be sure, presently Michigan doesn’t have the revenue base to support full implementation of a Massachusetts-like system. Let’s acknowledge that. Seven years is probably not realistic to put such a system into place here, but 10 or 15 years should be. And a weighted school funding formula with an “opportunity index” to address concentrations of poverty — along with fair funding for English Learners, students with disabilities and rural children — should be our guiding north star.
We are calling for a deeper commitment to equity in our state – for as we’ve mentioned, there is no excellence without real opportunity for all children.
We are among the organizations who are committed to working with and supporting state leaders’ efforts to determine how to better fund our state’s public education system.
So, what can we do now? We should prioritize investment in students who live in the greatest concentrations of poverty, in addition to English Learners, students with disabilities and children who live in remote communities.
This year, Michigan should double the amount for students who qualify for at-risk funding — from 11.5 percent to 23 percent in this year’s budget.
Second, we should fund weights for English Learners of 80% to 100%.
Third, we can enshrine a Massachusetts-like opportunity index in law and commit to fully funding the index over the next 10-15 years.
Fourth, we would like to see movement in this FY24 budget cycle toward closing the “shortfall gap” which is the difference between what is currently spent by districts and what is reimbursed for special education.
The revised funding formula is a step in the right direction as it moves toward a “both/and” approach in recognizing all students are general education students and therefore should receive the foundation allowance AND then some students require specially designed instructional supports or supports and services which requires additional resources to deliver.
And we would like to see this full foundation allowance (100%) + reimbursement for special education delivery be achieved by the current administration. For until the increase in special education funding exceeds the shortfall gap, no progress will be made for special education in Michigan.
Finally, it is critical for the state to develop and thoughtfully implement a strong fiscal transparency system to ensure much more accountability and public awareness of where funding flows for all student subgroups and students in general, including how and where dollars are used; how data is collected, monitored and publicly reported about spending; and far greater transparency with public stakeholders.
It is especially urgent that as the state invests more in public education, the state has a strong system in place to track whether dollars targeted for equity actually reach the students for whom the dollars are intended. Our perspective is rooted in the lived experiences of parents of the children whom we represent, as well as non-partisan research and the lessons learned from other states.
For example, California’s experience with overhauling its school funding system demonstrates the importance of such systems. Researchers found that billions of dollars – as little as 55 cents on the dollar — intended to increase or improve services for low-income students, English learners and foster youth are still not reaching these students at the school-site level.
Michigan can and should learn from California’s experience.
Long ago, our state – and leading states such as Massachusetts – took divergent paths.
Our path in Michigan is one that has had real and dramatic consequences for our most underserved students, including Black and Latino children, students with disabilities, English learners and students from low-income backgrounds, who have paid the greatest price for these decisions.
Now, we have a choice to take a new path – a path of hope and opportunity.
Michigan’s school inequities must not be allowed to continue. That will take strong leadership committed to both equitable investment and to holding our education system accountable for dramatically raising results.
Especially during Black History Month, I’m reminded of a great leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who talked about taking the difficult paths he and the freedom fighters walked — and the “difficult days ahead.”
I’m also reminded of the many, many years of difficult work that my organization, the Detroit branch of the NAACP, and our coalition members have done to advocate on behalf of our most underserved children. I’m reminded of the difficult days – and the changes we together have made that have made a difference for the safety, well-being and happiness of so many people.
I’m reminded that we’ve accomplished a lot — and that there’s so much work to do.
But real transformation can happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.
Dr. King also talked of the mountaintop he had been to – and the promised land he saw.
Today, we, too, see the mountaintop for our students – we see the summit of opportunity.
Yes, there may be challenges — but the end of the path is bright.
We hope you see it, too. And we hope you’ll walk with us on the path toward a brighter future of hope and opportunity for every Michigan child.
Thank you for your time today.