State Board of Education Not Immune To School Funding Myths

Schools in poor communities actually get more, not less

Perhaps the most persistent myth about public school funding in Michigan is that low-income communities have low-revenue school districts. According to a report in The Detroit News, even elected members of the State Board of Education sometimes repeat the myth.

Board member Kathleen Straus was quoted in the school funding story as saying, “The wealthy get better education, have more funding, when it should be the opposite.”

Except, data from the state Department of Education, over which the state board presides, refutes this claim.

The neighboring Berrien County cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are often cited by the media to illustrate the wealth gap between some Michigan communities. St. Joseph has a median household income of $52,774 and an 8.4 percent poverty rate. The median household income in Benton Harbor is $19,359, and the city has a 47.4 percent poverty rate.

Yet, when it comes to school budgets, Benton Harbor gets and spends almost $4,000 more per student for day-to-day operations than St. Joseph.

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Benton Harbor Area Schools received $12,645 per pupil in its general fund from local, state and federal sources in 2014-15, the most recent data available from the Michigan Department of Education. By comparison, St. Joseph Public Schools received $8,747 per pupil.

Federal education dollars are targeted toward at-risk, low-income students, meaning districts like Benton Harbor get more. St. Joseph schools received $1.1 million in federal aid in 2015, while Benton Harbor was given $9.9 million.

A similar pattern is visible throughout the state: Urban school districts that serve more students from low-income households get more money per student than counterparts in more affluent suburban communities.

The most recent (2015) Michigan Department of Education data on state, local and federal funding for school operations offers other examples. In Ingham County, Lansing School District received $13,350 per pupil, while Okemos Public Schools received $10,024.

In Kent County, Grand Rapids Public Schools received $11,218 per pupil, while East Grand Rapids Public Schools received $9,683.

In Genesee County, Flint Community Schools received $15,781 per pupil, while Grand Blanc Community Schools received $8,793.

Most urban school districts get more because they have more at-risk students — defined as students eligible for free and reduced-price federal lunch programs due to low family income. For example, Flint's school district received $2,389 per pupil in federal aid. Grand Blanc Community Schools, based in a more affluent area, received $295 per pupil in federal aid.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said some people were still thinking about how the way the state used to fund schools.

Michigan changed how it funds schools in 1994 when voters approved Proposal A. This created a system in which state money is used to balance funding between affluent communities with higher property tax bases and poor ones capable of raising less from property taxes.

“That change in reality hasn’t been matched by the change in perception,” Naeyaert said.

Straus didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

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