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One Size Just Does Not Fit All

Nobody needs to tell a parent every child is different.

All bring different gifts to the party, and no two are alike in their interests, their physical and mental development, their aptitude and abilities.

Our state pounds the same square peg into a round hole for every child with the exception of special education mandates, a relatively small amount of money for “at-risk” students and an even smaller amount for English-language learners.

The School Finance Research Collaborative challenges Michigan’s one-size-fits-all mentality with an exhaustive analysis of what it takes to educate all students to state standards by the nation’s top school funding research firms. Announced at press conferences last week, the study presents a challenge and opportunity to provide all Michigan students with the support they have long deserved.

These firms, which have conducted studies in all 50 states, brought together Michigan educators from every grade level, school size and type of community to analyze student needs and the resources necessary to fulfill them. They studied national research to verify the human, physical and capital resources deployed to meet varying student needs.

What they found is what we know. One size fits some. If that size — the state’s basic per-pupil allocation of $7,631 — were larger, it may fit most. But it definitely doesn’t fit all. And our dogged determination to drive down the cost of education to the lowest possible denominator is denying our children the education they need and deserve.

Most importantly, the 358-page study pegs resources to student needs. It costs $9,590 per pupil to bring a regular, general education student to proficiency in Michigan standards.This reflects all state, local and federal funding sources but does not include transportation, food service or capital costs for facilities.

The additional resources required to bring English-language learners to proficiency vary based on their fluency and literacy levels. Those who are new to our shores and our language need much more assistance, or 70 percent more than the base of $9,590 than those who score higher on English assessments, who would receive 35 percent more until they achieve proficiency.  Special education is are also weighted by need, with mildly impaired students requiring 70 percent more resources and the moderately impaired, 115 percent.

Economically disadvantaged students require 35 percent more resources to achieve proficiency than the general population. Schools serving fewer than 1,000 students should receive nearly $2,000 more per pupil than larger ones because they cannot achieve the efficiencies of districts that can allocate resources against a larger population base.

An adequate preschool program for 3- and 4-year olds would cost $14,155 per pupil. Career and technical education (CTE) students require $10,000 more per classroom for industry specific resources and training materials.

It’s Not About the Money

This is the only study in the nation to include charter schools, whose costs are considered the same as traditional public schools in this study. There are many contrasts in their spending, however, as traditional public schools must bear the cost of transportation and unfunded pension liability for school employees, which are not required or provided by most charter schools. While researchers said transportation deserves further study, they concluded it represents an expense of $973 per pupil, on average. In addition, traditional schools are currently spending approximately $1,300 per pupil on the unfunded pension liability. Those resources are not going directly to the student and are not borne by most charter schools. Researchers said most states handle those expenses differently than in Michigan.

Predictably, there are those who will say this is just about money. It isn’t. It’s about children, their individual needs, and what schools need to meet those needs. It’s about bringing  all students up to the standards set in law through the Michigan Merit Curriculum, the Merit Exam, and the M-Step standardized testing system. And, while ISDs and state associations supported the effort, major backers were the Kellogg, Skillman and Mott foundations, whose leaders believe it is essential for policy makers to know the true cost of educating a child.

When Michigan’s policy makers adopted our state standards, they said they were doing so to help our children and our state compete in a global economy, on an international stage, for the jobs of the 21st century. They didn’t ask how much it would cost to achieve those standards, however. In the years since their adoption, Michigan students have fallen farther and farther behind their peers in this country and across the world.

In previous years, most discussion about education funding focused on the dollars available in the School Aid Fund and the state’s per-pupil allocation to all districts. We’ve never before had the data to discuss what it takes to bring all students to standards, and without that information the debate devolved into adults arguing with adults about money.

We must use this report — arguably the most detailed study in the nation — to change the debate to a discussion of what children need to be successful.  Those who led the study are already meeting with leaders throughout the state to share the information and encourage future discussions of education funding be based on research, not emotion or partisan politics. This study makes it clear that money makes a difference in educational outcomes. It must be used wisely, and deployed strategically to achieve results, but it does matter.

If we truly care about all children, and giving them the assistance and education they need, we need to change the conversation. We need to break the per-pupil mentality and begin to think about each child’s individual needs. They’re all different, and this study demonstrates their costs are different as well.

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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