A new Ed Trust-Midwest survey reveals widespread dissatisfaction with pandemic instruction and strong demand for remedies to make up for lost learning, but the accompanying policy prescription for more money is built on a weak foundation and discounts a key piece of funding.
Nearly half of the 400 Michigan parents surveyed told pollsters that remote instruction has been worse for their children, while their schools have left them wondering how far behind students are now and what officials will do about it. Over 80% of respondents called for clear plans to address learning loss, including new summer school programs.
In addition to publishing the survey results, Ed Trust-Midwest recommended several steps for Michigan education leaders to take. At the forefront of those recommendations is a call to inject more tax dollars into the K-12 system. The group urges more funding for public schools generally, with significantly more funding for schools that serve students in poverty and students with disabilities.
While there may be some merit in dedicating a larger share of education-related resources to lower-income students, the argument is driven by a couple of faulty assumptions. First, the report offers a blanket statement: “Research shows that money matters, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. Increases in spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds.”
Ed Trust-Midwest hangs its hat on a single 2015 study, one bucking a consensus of earlier research that shows little or no connection between additional K-12 spending and better student outcomes. The authors of the cited study argued that more funding works, though they also allowed that “how the money is spent matters.”
As one prominent critic retorted, that sole study’s findings are suspect because they came from measures of predicted — not actual – spending, and narrowly reflected the conditions of a different time period. The research focused on “the effect of court-ordered spending in the 1970s when spending levels in real terms were much lower and variation in spending across districts within states was much higher. It’s quite a leap to think that more money now would have the same effect as then.”
Setting that contention aside, Ed Trust-Midwest’s recommendation contains a glaring omission: The complaints about inadequate and unfair funding focus exclusively on local and state tax dollars. While the report does mention federal stimulus funding, it fails to look at the size and breakdown of that extra outlay.
Last spring’s rush to pass the CARES Act yielded an extra $16 billion for the nation’s K-12 schools, including nearly $480 million for Michigan. In December, the divided Congress reached a deal on a second relief package, one that sends out $58 billion more, as long as American schools use it by 2023. The two mainpots of money in the December package combine to send Michigan nearly $1.8 billion, including about $87 million for nonpublic schools. All told, these extra funds more than doubled the amount of federal funding Michigan schools took in during the year before.
Still, the Ed Trust-Midwest authors urge officials to back “an additional federal stimulus package in early 2021 with significant investments in education.” They need to look no further than the $130 billion for K-12 schools in President-elect Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Like the two previous rounds of federal relief funding it would dwarf, the money from the Biden plan could be used for nearly any purpose in a district’s budget. It could easily add $4 billion more to Michigan school systems.
The report missed an opportunity to point out how dollars treat students differently based on what type of school they attend. For example, the CARES Act formula gave far more money per pupil to the Detroit Public Schools Community District than it did to the city’s charter schools, which serve similar demographics. The second round of federal funding uses the same distorted formula. Biden’s initial plan does not include a formula for distributing new federal support.
Furthermore, it’s doubtful that schools need this extra cash. Despite initial fears that the pandemic would decimate school revenue, it turns out that the taxes schools rely upon have increased rather than declined. State income and sales taxes revenues bounced back to allow the Legislature to authorize record levels of state aid to schools in 2021. Tens of millions of those dollars are being paid out to educate students who aren’t even there. And forecasts for the upcoming fiscal year indicate revenue that exceeds pre-pandemic levels.
The pandemic-induced surge of federal cash is accelerating Michigan’s recent growth in school funding, and along the way, it is reshaping how taxpayer dollars are allocated among schools. Lawmakers ought to ignore the Ed Trust-Midwest report’s prescription, just as its authors ignore a material source of school funding.
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