Mackinac Center’s Work Softens Impact of Pro-spending Education Study

The summer release of Michigan’s adequacy study was supposed to fuel the case for a major increase in school funding, as similar studies have done in other states. But any momentum for a lawsuit or legislative action was lost in the study’s dense pages.

The $399,000 taxpayer-funded report from the Colorado-based firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) buried the lead. The large price tag found in most adequacy studies the firm has done for other states was omitted from the recommendations for Michigan. A state agency released the study in late June with little fanfare or guidance for lawmakers.

Reporters were left to piece together the proposal and the reasoning behind it. At the Mackinac Center, our team was prepared to help them do their homework by highlighting key points and omissions in the study and comparing it with the results of our work. 

It was easy for people to latch onto $8,667, the “base per pupil” funding level APA recommended. It was generated from an analysis of 54 Michigan school districts deemed “notably successful.” The report’s analysts estimated the cost of educating each student enrolled in a public school, and then added funds for low-income or special education students.

The study gave the Center an opportunity to explain how a school district’s foundation allowance, the most commonly reported number in school finance, represents only a part of school spending. (In 2014-15, schools spent on average more than $11,000 from all sources on each student.)

Some of the study’s own observations and conclusions undermined the case for an aggressive school funding increase. I repeatedly highlighted the fact that 19 of the 54 successful districts spent an average of 10 percent less than the amount the study recommended. Someone had to challenge its attempt to brush aside these districts’ more efficient approach. If not us, who?

Our earlier research had already cast reasonable doubt on the solution that status quo interests called for and anticipated from the study. Days before the study’s scheduled March 31 release date (later delayed to June 27), the Mackinac Center published the results of its rigorous, multiyear, building-level analysis. My co-author Edward Hoang and I found no connection between increased spending and better performance on 27 out of 28 different academic indicators.

While APA’s adequacy study claimed more confidence than we have in the relationship between spending and achievement, its results deflated hopes that more money would overcome Michigan’s flagging educational performance. APA found that every additional $1,000 spent per pupil would lead to a 1 percent gain in proficiency on state tests. At that rate, doubling state funding to K-12 education would not be enough to ensure even one-third of the state’s 11th-graders met the mark in math.

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge magazine published a story on the study, featuring the weak return on investment as one of its three big “head-scratchers.” The magazine estimated that it would take an extra $100,000 to enable one student to achieve at grade level. Senior writer Ron French aptly observed that such calculations would “be used like a club by budget hawks in Lansing every time an education advocate brings up the adequacy study as a reason to increase school funding.”

Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson lamented that the adequacy study “landed with the force of a feather on desks in Lansing.” Like Henderson, most observers could conclude that lawmakers would find nothing in the report to compel drastic changes in the state’s financing system.

The response from Gov. Snyder’s office was “that a more equitable funding system is needed and more needs to be done to measure education funding and outcomes.” While some points of the APA study may merit consideration, the push for more money didn’t resonate. Only a day earlier, the governor signed into law the latest school aid budget bill, based on a 1.8 percent increase. The budget also continued the trend of giving lower-funded school districts larger increases in the foundation allowance than other districts.

A push to turbocharge taxpayer funding for Michigan schools may have run out of gas. The time has come to leave this misguided detour and get back on the road of more serious discussions about education reforms.