This piece is co-authored by Manon Steel, Roosevelt’s National Education Policy Coordinator and a member of Roosevelt @ MSU, and Connor Rockhill, a student at the University of Michigan and a member of Roosevelt @ U of M. If you’re interested in getting involved with Roosevelt @ U of M, check them out on Twitter or Facebook.

Why are schools in Detroit so much worse than schools in Grosse Pointe? This seems like a simple question that should have a simple answer, but in reality the answer is deceptively complicated. This is because the real answer goes beyond the typical narrative that Grosse Pointe simply has more money than Detroit and involves asking what is “fair” or what is equitable in education. This in turn calls into question what we, as citizens of the state of Michigan, value. Further, this question forces us to confront a series of uncomfortable realities about the equality of opportunity of Michigan citizens.


(Photo) An example of the infrastructure found in some Detroit Public Schools.

Equity is concerned with the equality of resources available to students. There are two different types of equity: Horizontal and Vertical. Horizontal equity is the equal distribution of resources to all students, and vertical equity is the discernment of resources given that different circumstances require differentiated resources. These understandings of equity are based on the understanding of equal opportunity, or the relative opportunity each student has to be academically successful given each student’s access to available resources. Horizontal equity ensures equality of opportunity in the sense that each student will receive the same amount of resources, usually state tax dollars. It should be noted that horizontal equity often fails to account for and alleviate extraneous factors such as the overlapping problems of racial inequity and poverty. Vertical equity, however, takes into account differentiated circumstances such as the availability of extra income. Vertical equity ensures a more even distribution of resources which creates a bridge between high and low academic achievement.


(Photo) An example of some of the infrastructure found in some Grosse Pointe Schools. 

Equity is often measured through whether or not resources are adequate to warrant sufficient academic achievement. Adequacy is the measure of the amount of resources it takes to ensure that students are able to reach defined state and federal standards. Since the 1990s and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB 2001), adequacy has often meant a student’s ability to perform on standardized tests. For example, a budget is deemed inadequate if it is not sufficient to provide the resources necessary for a districts students to score proficient (or better) on state standardized tests. A budget is inequitable if one school district vastly outscores another because its resources are more adequate based on comparative test scores.

Ultimately, the goal of equity is to safeguard equal opportunity to academic success. In terms of education finance reform in the state of Michigan, resource distribution became a tale of winners and losers. In 1993, Michigan changed how it funded schools. Instead of basing the majority of school funding on property taxes like the majority of the country, Michigan chose to base the majority of school funding on base grants and per-pupil spending. The base grant would be the fundamental amount of money each school would receive before per student funds; this base would be increased each year for poorer school districts until they became more even with wealthier school districts. Schools would then receive a certain amount of money per student so as not to favor smaller school districts over larger ones. The plan also limited the amount of money school districts could raise through their community. The idea was to improve the funding disparities between wealthy and poorer school districts through state intervention. For awhile this worked. However, when recession hit Michigan in the late 1990s progress stagnated and even regressed. Schools began to lose money, particularly at risk districts. This happened because the funding reform moved the source of the state education budget to the sales tax and the recession led people to buy fewer things, thus reducing the revenues created by the sales tax. In other words, the education budget has shriveled with the economy. Although the economy has improved in recent years, it has not done so enough to offset the heavy losses in revenue throughout the late 1990s, early 2000s, and early 2010s.

Other major education reforms of the 1990s, such as charter schools, adequacy testing, and school of choice policies, have only exacerbated funding problems. Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated academic institutions which are mostly exempt from state regulatory standards. Since 1998 when they were first authorized, Charter schools have exploded. As of 2017, Michigan has 303 charter schools, most of which are congregated in low-income, minority districts like Flint and Detroit. In fact, nearly half of all Michigan charter schools are in greater Detroit. School choice has allowed students to choose where they go school and created competition amongst schools for the funding that comes with them. Adequacy testing takes the form of state standardized tests and is usually used to label schools as good or bad. All of these policies work together to create a complex education market, where students shop for the best schools so that they can get better test scores. Schools act as businesses trying to sell students their academic product by advertising new facilities, the best teachers, and high academic outcomes. Like in all capitalist systems, there are winners and losers and who wins and who loses is often based on what resources each group has available to them.

The losers of these policies are low income, high poverty students, mostly in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color in Detroit and Flint. The most distinctive difference of these districts is that they cannot reach out to their communities for extra resources because their communities have so few resources to begin with. With  so little funding and correlational low test scores, these districts lose students to better funded districts. This further reduces their funding, which causes the already low academic climate to digress even more and the district to lose even more students. These districts enter what is called a debt spiral, where they continually hemorrhage funds, academic opportunities, and students. They also tend to be disproportionately made up of students of color and poor students. This means that already disadvantaged groups become more disadvantaged by this system.

These students have equal opportunity to escape these districts to better ones due to the school of choice policy, however, school choice policy does not guarantee transportation to these schools and students may need to travel tens of miles to reach the next best school. Parents may not have the time or resources to provide their children with transportation to these other schools. Furthermore, studies show that switching schools often does not improve a student’s test scores. In fact, most often students who switch schools perform worse than the average student at their previous school. This likely occurs from the stress and disruption caused by leaving a familiar community and acclimating to the culture of a new one.

In their chapter of the Handbook of Research in Education Policy and Finance, Baker and Green state: “[Equal opportunity] means that variations in resources across children should not be a function of the wealth of the community in which a child happens to live”. The results of Michigan’s current education policy calls into question whether or not it adequately provides “equal opportunity” to all of its students. In Michigan, districts spend around $12,188 per student according to NPR’s School Money Project. This is around the national average, however it is obvious that this number isn’t adequate for meeting the needs of all of Michigan’s students as Michigan is 45th in the nation in terms of academic performance. Michigan should spend money according to the principles of vertical equity, that different situations require different resources, and spend enough to close the achievement gap between majority White, high performing school districts and majority minority, low performing districts. At the present, charter schools and school choice policies make this nearly impossible. Therefore, the public must call into question the status quo of Michigan’s education policies if it is committed to providing equal opportunity to all its children.

There are several opportunities to learn more about the state of education, school quality, school choice, charter schools, and equity in Michigan. On March 29, join us at University of Michigan for a viewing of Backpack Full of Cash, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A on the relevance of the film in the context of Michigan.