In addition to
demanding "adequate" and "stable" funding, the special interest groups embedded
within Michigan's public school system frequently call for funding that is
"equitable." They overlook the fact, however, that greatly reducing funding
disparities was one of the goals — and accomplishments — of the 1994 Proposal A
school finance reform. While achieving perfect equality is a greater challenge
than most imagine, today the spending differences between schools is smaller
than ever before.
A, 80 percent of Michigan school operating funds came from local property
taxes. Because both property values and voter-approved millage rates varied
widely between districts, the system produced large funding disparities. Prop A
cut and capped millage rates, and made up the foregone revenue with an array of
earmarks from state income taxes, sales taxes, a 6-mill state education
property tax and others.
provide an annual infusion of some $11 billion in state money that is
distributed to public school districts according to a "foundation allowance"
formula, which establishes a minimum amount of dollars per student that each
district gets to spend. This minimum represented a substantial increase over
the revenues of the state's poorest districts at the time, and over what those
revenues most likely would be today were we still under the old system.
The new system,
however, did not absolutely level revenue among districts, and arguably never
intended to. Its distribution formula is based in part on districts'
pre-Proposal A funding levels, so that the most richly funded schools were not
forced to come down. In other words, disparities would be reduced not by
pulling down the well-funded districts, but by bringing up those below them.
In simple terms,
the Proposal A distribution formula factors in revenue from (capped) local
millages levied on non-residential property, supplementing this with varying
levels of state tax revenue.
funding disparities still exist. For instance, the per-pupil foundation
allowance in the Bloomfield Hills district is more than $12,000, while the
effective minimum amount for some districts is about $7,100. This particular
eyebrow-raising $5,000 disparity is abnormal and is the most extreme case;
under the previous system, the gap between highest and lowest was more than
majority of schools now are funded at levels that fall in a fairly narrow
range. The House Fiscal Agency reports that in the 2009-2010 school year, 80
percent of all districts (including charter public schools) receive between
$7,100 and $7,400 per student through the foundation allowance formula;
94 percent fall between $7,100 and $8,500.
Only 5.5 percent
of districts exceed $8,300 in per-student spending under the formula. And like
Bloomfield Hills, the other big spenders generally get less state money,
relying on local property taxes to maintain their comparatively high revenues.
allowance is only one school revenue source, however, and money from other
sources further reduces disparities. For example, the foundation allowance for
Grand Rapids schools is around $300 less per student than the neighboring
district of East Grand Rapids, but the Grand Rapids district receives much
larger amounts of federal and state "categorical funding" that is allocated in
large part on the basis of having a greater number of students from low-income
households. In 2007-2008 (the latest data available), Grand Rapids schools
spent $3,000 more per pupil on operations than its wealthier neighbor — a
disparity would-be "levelers" unlikely want to reverse.
policymakers and voters wisely decided in 1994 that the proper goal in a system
of government-run public schools is not "leveling" to achieve perfect funding
equality, but instead to ensure that every school district has a reasonable
amount of money to educate its students. As mentioned, the system created then
did not attempt to tear down the high spenders, but instead raise up lower-funded
There is in fact
a means to provide equal funding for all students no matter where they live -
it's called school vouchers. Interestingly, those who complain the most about
"inequitable funding" — like representatives of school employee unions and
school boards — are also the loudest opponents of eliminating inequity by
giving parents the choice of where to school their children.
Michael Van Beek is director of
education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational
institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are