David Hecker: We’ve made strides in school funding, but more must be done

August 4, 2021 9:21 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the FY 2022 School Aid budget, July 13, 2021 | Whitmer office photo

A few weeks ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan School Aid budget bill, the largest in history, that takes important steps toward fully funding our pre-K-12 public schools. As I remarked at the governor’s press conference, this is what happens when Democrats and Republicans come together in support of our children.

As it stands, Michigan’s outdated system distributes a foundation allowance per student in a manner that treats districts differently. This funding system is a big reason why marginalized and low-income students struggle to achieve the same levels of educational success as their counterparts in wealthier districts.

Whitmer and legislative leaders have taken a crucial step toward righting that wrong. Under this new bill, foundation allowance funding for public schools across the state will be equal, meaning nearly every district will receive the same dollar amount per student. This is a positive change that will benefit students and educators — but, as Whitmer herself acknowledges, it’s not enough.

“Equal funding does not mean we have achieved equity,” said the governor about the passage of this year’s budget, and she’s 100% correct. While funding equality sounds great on the surface, and is no doubt a step up from our current system, a one-size-fits-all funding model like we currently have ignores the individual needs of students and districts.

That is the fundamental difference between funding equality, which requires we provide the same resources to everyone, and funding equity, which takes into account the needs students in different communities have and funds their schools accordingly.

The fact of the matter is that our kids, each of whom deserves a quality education that will allow them to learn and thrive, start off on vastly different playing fields based on the circumstances they live in. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the FY 2022 School Aid budget alongside AFT Michigan President David Hecker and MEA President Paula Herbart, July 13, 2021 | Whitmer office photo

It is well-founded in research, not to mention common sense, that poverty often makes it much harder for students to achieve their academic potential. A student from an economically well-off family will have resources, supports and experiences that a child in poverty will not. A Black, Brown or Asian-American child who struggles with the emotional impacts of racism on a daily basis might have a harder time working toward success in the classroom.

Factors like those are the driving force behind Michigan’s achievement gap, and we need a funding system that addresses them head-on. 

The School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC) model of education funding presents an equity model that addresses students and districts individual needs, an equity model that Michigan needs to adopt. It answered the question: What does it take to educate a student?

The funding amounts are based on the number and kinds of staff that districts need to address what our students need.

Under their weighted model, funding would be distributed based not just on the number of students in a district, but the circumstances those students come from and the increased support they may need as a result. So beyond a base foundation allowance, districts would receive additional funds based on the needs of students in poverty, special needs students and English language learners, as well as programs to provide career and technical education and to account for some districts’ geographic isolation. And while the new school aid act significantly increases funds for early childhood education, the SFRC study would expand this essential piece even further.  

With adequate funding, schools that have struggled for decades to keep class sizes manageable and provide the necessary educational resources would be able to do more for their kids in the classroom. Beyond that, these schools would be better equipped to support students and their families and ensure their basic needs are met outside of school.

We’ve made significant strides this year with Whitmer signing the School Aid budget, but we’re far from finished. Funding equality is good, but it’s not good enough, and I’m looking forward to the progress we can make as we build toward true equity for all of our students.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.