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Statewide Study Shows True Cost of Educating a Child

Lays Groundwork for Funding Reform, Leaders Say

What’s the actual annual baseline cost of educating a student to proficiency in Michigan? At minimum, nearly $2,000 more than we’re spending now, according to a newly released study that exhaustively examines school funding in Michigan.

The current state funding formula is not providing nearly enough for students to meet state education standards, say leaders of the School Finance Research Collaborative, a statewide group that worked to determine the true cost of educating children as a way to move toward school funding reform.

Educators said the comprehensive study marks an unprecedented effort to fully fund quality K-12 education in Michigan. Knowing the actual cost to educate students is necessary for Michigan to reach its goal of becoming a Top 10 education state in 10 years, said Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Counting the Costs
Key findings of the School Finance Research Collaborative adequacy study:

  • The base cost to educate a child in Michigan is $9,590 regardless of income, location, learning challenges or other circumstances
  • That cost does not include transportation, food service or capital costs, and includes pension costs at 4.6% of staff wages
  • Costs for individual districts increase according to weighted levels of special education, poverty, English-language learners and district size. For instance, it costs another $2,000 per pupil for districts with 1,000 or fewer students
  • Further study is needed of capital and transportation costs and possible additional costs of high-needs students in poverty
  • The project cost was $877,000, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott and Skillman foundations, and contributions from Intermediate School Districts, including $43,497 from Kent ISD

Source: School Finance Research Collaborative

“We, as a state, need to offer the best possible education that we can for children, and in order to do that we need to start with the truth,” Neal said at a press conference Wednesday at Innovation Central High School. “We all have to understand what that truth is.

“We need to start by having honest conversations. I think this is the first step.”

Announced also at press conferences in Lansing and Southfield, the report will be brought to legislators and local school districts in hopes of remedying long-overdue deficiencies and inequities in school funding, said Robert Moore, the project director.

“The system is broken,” said Moore, deputy superintendent of Oakland Schools. “The inequities are ridiculous and it needs to be fixed. We need to have it based on the needs of every child.”

Delving Deeper into Costs

The study was undertaken by Michigan business leaders, education experts and public district and charter school leaders. It was conducted by two firms with long experience in these types of analyses: Augenblick, Palaich and Associates; and Picus, Odden and Associates. This study, similar to those in other states, builds on a 2016 school finance study that educators felt did not go deep enough in analyzing students’ needs and measures of success, Moore said.

The study shows the base-level cost of educating a student to proficiency on Michigan state standards is $9,590 — a number that does not take into account location, income or other circumstances. The basic per-pupil foundation allowance for K-12 districts in the state in 2017-2018 was $7,631, meaning schools have been operating at a base-level shortfall of $1,959 annually.

The report finds it costs significantly more to educate special education students, English-language learners, students living in high-poverty areas and those receiving career and technical education. The study shows the following costs to educate students using a weighted formula and with a base cost of $9,590:

  • $14,155 for a preschool student
  • $20,618 for a special education student of moderate needs
  • $12,947 for a student in poverty

“Different children come with different needs, and those needs have different costs,” said Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Other findings include that high-quality early childhood education should be fully and completely funded. Charter and traditional public schools should be funded equally, and districts under 7,500 students should receive funding increases because smaller districts incur greater costs per student. Transportation costs should be funded separately at $973 per rider.

Data was collected from over 250 educators from school districts, charter schools and intermediate school districts. They served on 20 panels providing professional judgment and evidence-based research on the costs needed to ensure students meet graduation requirements, the new third-grade reading law and other state standards. The study did not include transportation, food service or capital costs in per-student funding figures.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal talks about the need for statewide reform to adequately fund schools

Educating Students ‘At a Deficit’

Data show the need for school-funding reform, said study leaders. Michigan currently ranks 24th in the nation in per-pupil K-12 spending — a drop from eighth-highest in 2000. Since then, Michigan’s inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has fallen by $663 per pupil, while the U.S. average has increased by over $1,400 per student.

“We know what it is costing to educate, what it takes to educate, and we’ve been doing so at a deficit,” Neal said. “We’ve been saying it for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Michigan ranks at the bottom in student performance nationwide, and its “economic comeback” depends on all students getting a high-quality education, the report warns.

East Grand Rapids Board of Education Vice President Elizabeth Welch said educators and legislators now have “data at your fingertips” to prioritize better funding. She said East Grand Rapids Public Schools, an affluent district, has made budget cuts but has resources including a foundation that helps cover shortfalls.

“I fully recognize that most districts can’t do that,” she said. “I want supports for all students.”

She said she’s met parents from across West Michigan who want adequate resources for their children. “Right now we rank at the bottom, but it wasn’t always that way.”

Investment is the answer, said Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Koehler.

“Most of you think it’s about money. It’s not. It’s about children,” Koehler said. “What we want for our children and our grandchildren is the same thing we would want for them if they suffered a catastrophic injury or illness and had to go to the hospital. At that moment if we were asked by a doctor, ‘What do you want for your child?,’ your response would be simple: ‘Whatever it takes.’

“You should want the same for your children, for all of our children in education,” he asserted. “Their education is that important. For most, it is truly the difference between a life of opportunities and possibilities and a life of struggling to put food on the table for their families.”

Wendy Falb, president of the GRPS Board of Education, said she hopes the study marks the beginning of historic legislative efforts to finally fix “our broken, outdated and inequitable system of funding for public schools.”

“Now is the time that our state lawmakers unite in a bipartisan, bicameral approach to fundamentally change the way we fund education to ensure we are meeting the needs of all students and they reach their full potential,” she said.


Complete School Finance Collaborative Report

Video: What Does it Cost to Educate a Child?

GRPS Board of Education President Wendy Falb presents a new funding adequacy study. Looking on, from left, are Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice; East Grand Rapids Public Schools Vice President Elizabeth Welch; Newaygo County RESA Superintendent Lori Tubergen Clark: Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Koehler; and GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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