More money promotes equal access
This academic year, the state of Michigan will pay approximately $7,300 for each Detroit Public Schools student. This money, known as a foundational allowance, is one of the lowest received by any public school system in the metro area. Of this amount, 6 percent will come from a nonhomestead tax levied on businesses and other commercial enterprises in the city.
Just five miles north of the city’s northwest boundary is Birmingham, a tony community that bustles with offices, fashionable shops, chic restaurants and clubs. Birmingham’s school district is frequently praised as one of the finest in the state, a fact that makes the city one of the most desirable zip codes in the metro Detroit area. High school graduation rates hover at close to 100 percent, as does the percentage of seniors who are college-bound.
Like the other public school systems in Michigan, Birmingham automatically receives $6,700 from the state for each child it educates, but the money that pours in from the non-homestead levy pushes the per pupil allowance to more than $11,000. To be sure, several other schools in the area and throughout the state receive amounts through their non-homestead levies that significantly dwarf Detroit’s foundational allowance. But the disparities raise a larger question: should geography or fate determine how much money is doled out to furnish every child in this state with his or her birthright – a public education?
Many critics are quick to lambaste educators like myself who believe that state governments throughout this land ought to move aggressively to bridge the disparities in public funding. The solution to the problems in public education, they argue, is not more money.
I couldn’t agree more.
But the critics miss the point. It’s true that there are no conclusive studies that agree that pumping money into the education of a child guarantees strong reading skills, graduation from high school and admission into a reputable college. But it doesn’t take a study to prove that more funds provide certain advantages. These advantages include stronger programs in fine art, music, technology, reading, science and mathematics. The advantages also include stronger extra-curricular offerings and the ability to attract talented teachers and staff.
In recent years, the Detroit Public Schools’ precarious financial position has made it increasingly difficult to maintain first-rate academic programs and to recruit and retain talented teachers and administrators. If the past is anything to go by, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. In the last half-century, the city has lost more than half its population. During that same time frame, the size of the district’s student body has shrunk by more than 50 percent.
Meanwhile, many businesses continue to join the residents in fleeing for the suburbs. As the exodus continues, we are seeing a growth in the number of students from low-income backgrounds and those with special needs. For many of these students, the Detroit Public Schools is their best – and only – hope. But unless we can come up with a way to maintain the quality of academic programs we have offered for generations and unless we are able to continue to attract committed, first-rate teachers we may end up giving them very limited hope for the future.
That’s why we have teamed with many other school districts in this state to call for an equity and adequacy study. Today, more than half a century after the birth of the modern civil rights movement, 21st century America still maintains what amounts to a dual education system. But unlike what has happened throughout much of the history of this country, this system is not based on race but on economics – and that is a shame. Our children deserve better.
We owe it to all our children to ensure that they have equal access to the same kinds of ultra-modern facilities, highly qualified teachers and programs that both educate and enlighten their peers from affluent communities like Birmingham. A public educational system that is too heavily weighted on property taxes fails to look out for all children.
This is not an isolated view. Across the state and throughout this country more and more people have been agitating for a system that provides a more reasonable way of funding the education of our children. There have been court battles in a long list of states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland and New York. All over the United States, there is much talk about coming up with a more fair, more equitable way to pay for the education of our children.
The evidence suggests that the momentum will only continue to build. The U.S. Constitution gives states the right to decide how to fund public education. That right gives states broad discretion. The state’s top elected officials could step in to address this issue. It would be an audacious step, but it would be in the best interests of the children.
It would also be in the best interest of our state and our country. The United States cannot continue to maintain its competitive edge as the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation as long as it maintains a two-tier public education system.
As a nation’s public school system goes, so goes the nation. No modern nation has reached its apogee without a first-rate educational system. The leaders of India, the land with the world’s second fastest growing economy, realize this. For years, public education there was in a shambles, and for years it mattered little to many in the affluent and middle classes; they simply sent their children to private schools. But as India tries to enter the exclusive club of the world’s wealthy and powerful nations, its rulers recognize that they must shape up their educational system.
The same lesson applies to Michigan. In order to drive more of our students toward higher education, in order to stamp out illiteracy and in order to make the state a fertile arena for industry and development, we must have a sound public education system. That will not happen until we start educating all our children equally.
William F. Coleman III is CEO of the Detroit Public Schools.