State Superintendent Brian Whiston recently spoke with School News Network reporter Charles Honey about the Michigan Education Finance Study, which was released earlier this summer, and other school funding issues. Following are edited excerpts from their interview.
SNN: What are the most important things you think came out of the report?
Whiston: It talks about the continual need to look at equity, to make sure a zip code doesn’t determine the offerings that kids have, but that all students have access to high-quality programs with lots of options. (I am) very supportive of the notion of taking kids in poverty and kids in ELL and giving them additional funding. (In Massachusetts,) the legislature and governor and business community invested heavily in the schools in exchange for some reforms. I think we ought to look at that same kind of structure. Those are three things I’m taking from the study and saying we need to have further conversations on.
The study did not look at special education and the problems we’re having in terms of (funding) facilities. Some communities can put a mill (in property taxes) out there and do a lot, and some communities put 10 mills out there and raise no money. There’s got to be a fairness where maybe the state equalizes that somehow. At some point we need to deal with that.
The report talks a lot about continuing inequities among districts. What is your thought as to what you can do?
We’ve got to continue the 2x formula concept, where you’re still giving every district some increase but you continue to bring up the bottom districts. I’m not one that says every student ought to have nine grand. We ought to look at the poverty numbers, the ELL and special ed. Districts that are very heavy in those maybe need a little more money, and other districts may need a little less. If we’re really going to be serious about making Michigan a top 10 state (in education), we have to address the issues of poverty.
The report says $8,667 is the optimal (per-student base) funding based on these 54 best-performing districts. Is that a number that you’re shooting for to try to bring all districts up to that level at least? Or is that unrealistic for Michigan?
I don’t think that’s unrealistic. I don’t know that that’s the right number. But I think there has to be a number, then we have to look at things like poverty, ELL, special-ed., and districts with heavy populations of those may need more.
So is that number a little high for what we can actually do In MI?
Right, but we (should) continue to address the equity while we address these other key issues.
Do you have a target number?
I think we ought to use the report’s number as a base and then have the conversations from there.
So what do you do next with this?
We’re certainly going to discuss it with the governor and key legislative leaders, have it hopefully discussed at the Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission, and continue to have the issue in the public eye so that legislators will address it. But we’re encouraging all the education groups to continue to have conversations with their folks, and have their folks have conversations with legislators.
To me it’s not about just putting more money in the system, though. I think we have to invest for change as well. Maybe we look at a balanced calendar, with adding time to the school year, done in a different way. My concept would be add some time to the calendar, but do it for the kids who are below our expectations. For the kids at or above expectations, have options for them that they could choose from if they want to, but they don’t have to. But make sure we’re adding time to the year for kids who are under-performing and under-achieving.
What do you hope the report does in terms of bringing attention to Michigan’s funding situation?
I hope it really shows we need to continue to invest in education. No matter how we look at it, if we want to be a top 10 state, we have to invest in education.