Some Berrien County school officials are sending a message to state lawmakers who are putting together next year’s budget, saying the way the state funds public schools is “fundamentally broken” and needs to be fixed to reflect the true cost of educating students.

That’s according to a resolution passed recently by trustees in at least two Berrien County school districts – Coloma and Lakeshore – and by the members of the Berrien RESA Board of Education.

The resolution calls for the state to change to a weighted school funding formula that provides more money to school districts for children who are in poverty and special education, or who are English language learners. The state currently gives schools districts a flat rate for each student, with some extra funding for students in special education.

At least three statewide studies in recent years have called for this change, including by the nonpartisan School Finance Research Collaborative in January 2018 and by the Michigan State University College of Education in January.

Lakeshore Public Schools Superintendent Phil Freeman said that if school funding was changed to match the recommendations of the collaborative, Lakeshore schools would receive almost $5 million more in funding annually.

“This resolution is asking the state to recognize the increased cost in these areas for our students,” he said.

Lakeshore Trustee Mark Whitwam said the governor’s proposal would increase funding to Lakeshore by $301 per student because it does more than increase the per pupil allowance. It also increases funding based on the needs of the students as recommended by the studies. He said the state Senate’s proposal would increase the foundation allowance by a flat rate of $270 per student, but would cut other funding, which would have a negative impact on Lakeshore.

Berrien RESA Superintendent Kevin Ivers said the resolution is a result of a representative from the collaborative giving a presentation during the Berrien-Cass School Board Association’s April meeting.

“We are in favor of sending a message to our (state) legislators that funding, in order to meet all students’ needs, needs to be changed,” he said. “We’re hoping that all Berrien County school districts will pass this resolution.”

School aid fund money diverted

In addition, the resolution states that a significant percentage of state school aid fund (SAF) dollars, which have traditionally been used for K-12 funding, have been redirected to fund community colleges and four-year institutions in the past few years.

The amount of money that has been diverted is $4.5 billion since 2010. Officials say that even though that’s allowed by the state constitution, it hasn’t been done since the SAF was established in 1955 – until 2010, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

All of the funding for postsecondary education came from the general fund until 2010, when state lawmakers, under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, shifted $208.4 million from the SAF to higher education to balance the state’s budget, which was hurting due to the Great Recession. At the time, it was considered a one-time loan to be paid back, MLPP stated in “A hard habit to break: The raiding of K-12 funds for postsecondary education.”

No money for higher education was taken from the SAF in 2011. Then in 2012, under former Gov. Rick Snyder, $459.6 million was taken out of the SAF for higher education, with the K-12 foundation allowance being cut by $470 per student. Money for higher education has been taken out of the SAF ever since, with no mention of paying it back.

This school year, $908 million was taken out of the SAF for higher education. If those funds had been used for K-12 education, the state could have given another $614 per student to public school districts, according to representatives from the Michigan School Business Officials, who spoke in Lansing in March.

School districts hurting

Freeman said more money is needed for school districts to do their jobs.

“If that money were funneled back into K-12 education, we would be a whole lot closer to being able to fund public schools in the state of Michigan at the levels recommended by the School Finance Research Collaborative,” he said.

The amount of money districts get from the state became even more important after voters approved Proposal A in 1994. Before Proposal A, districts were funded mostly at the local level. Proposal A cut property taxes and shifted funding control to the state as a way to decrease funding disparities between school districts, plus provide tax relief for property owners.

A review of speeches and newspaper articles at the time show no mention of the possibility of SAF money being used for higher education. And the language on the ballot only mentions “schools.”

To find the language about higher education, voters would have had to read the much longer version of the proposal, which stated near the end: “There shall be established a state school aid fund which shall be used exclusively for aid to school districts, higher education and school employees’ retirement systems, as provided by law.”

Student performance suffering

The loss of funding for the state’s public schools has had a detrimental effect, according to the MSU study, “Michigan School Finance at the Crossroad: A Quarter Century of State Control.”

According to the study, Michigan students performed above the national average on the National Assessment of Education Progress before Proposal A became law. But since then, Michigan’s students have fallen to the bottom tier of states on the NAEP.

The report states that among all of the states, Michigan ranked last in student proficiency improvement between 2003 and 2015.

“Education Trust Midwest found that Michigan was one of five states in which fourth-grade reading performance has declined since 2003,” according to the report. “Only West Virginia had a greater decline in reading performance.”

Even the scores of the state’s affluent students have dropped, the study found.

The resolution also recognizes this, stating that the “unacceptable statewide outcomes are clearly not a result of changing demographics, as some suggest, as Michigan’s higher-income and white students are also among the worst performing in the country.”

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege