MLive reports that Shaton Berry, president of the Michigan Parent Teacher Association, is blaming Highland Park School District’s dismal student test scores on a lack of public resources.

In a release commenting on the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the district for providing an inadequate education, Berry stated:

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When the Legislature cuts funding for public education, this is the result: students who are years behind grade level in reading and mathematics and districts without the resources to provide adequate instruction or remediation.

Unfortunately, Berry’s statements ignore several realities.

First, new data from the state published online just a month ago showed that Michigan public schools received more money in 2011 than ever before. 

Second, a lack of resources is certainly not the issue in Highland Park. During the 2010-11 school year, Highland Park spent almost $20,000 per pupil. That is an astounding 70 percent more than the statewide average of $11,560.

Some might be eager to say that if it’s not the spending, then it’s the lack of teachers driving Highland Park’s underperformance.

That does not appear to be the case either. Highland Park reported employing one full-time teacher for every 13 students, whereas the state average is one full-time teacher for every 17 students.

Highland Park is an excellent illustration of the principle that it’s not how much school districts spend, it’s how they spend the money that is important.

In the release, Berry called for “adequate school funding” to improve Michigan schools. Given that suggestion, Berry may be interested in a recent school finance case from Missouri (where I previously worked as a policy analyst). In 2004, a group sued the state of Missouri for failing to provide an “adequate” level of per-pupil funding.

The litigation that followed prompted an examination of the relationship between per-pupil expenditures and student outcomes. Expert testimony showed that increases in per-pupil funding did not result in increased student academic outcomes — consistent with national trends — and the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim.

When considering Michigan data, Highland Park’s troubles do not appear to be the result of a lack of funding, but instead due to mismanagement. Addressing the district’s ills is not as simple as throwing more money at the problem. 

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