Saturday, January 7, 2012

K-12 Funding Perpetuates the Inequity of Opportunity

If Popeye the Sailor was a school superintendent in an impoverished district, his mantra would likely be, “I’ve had all I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!” Unfortunately, there’s no magical can of spinach that will help me or any of my peers in districts facing similar challenges. But, it’s long overdue that more of us speak out on the inequity of opportunity that confronts our kids, and that’s just what I’m fixin’ to do. You can choose to read the rest of this post and gain a better understanding of the problem, or, like many of my contemporaries and our political leaders, you can bury your head in the sand and act like there’s no problem.

Fair warning, I’m coming after those who simply choose to ignore the inequities, continue to make excuses for why they exist and why they can’t be fixed, or just simply blow me off as another educator wanting more money. This isn’t about more money for K-12 education, it’s about equity of opportunity for my kids who are expected to achieve at the same levels as other kids, rich, middle class or poor, disability or no disability, proficient in the English language or not.

Let me be clear about my position: There is very little equity of opportunity in our K-12 system when it comes to education and making a better life for one’s self.

First, what is meant by equity of opportunity? We’re not talking about equality; equity does not imply that every child receives equal dollars. A common understanding of equity involves looking at it from a horizontal and vertical point of view (Roza and Miles, 2002):

  • Horizontal: do students with similar characteristics receive equal resources?
  • Vertical: do students with dissimilar characteristics receive appropriately dissimilar resources?

Inequity, therefore, exists when kids in districts receive less funding or having less resources available – such as modern buildings, technology, well-educated teachers, supplemental supports, etc. – than their peers in districts with higher levels.

"Furthermore, low-income children and English language learners need extra resources to overcome disadvantages due to socioeconomic status or lack of English language proficiency. In many cases, not only are these children not receiving equal resources but they are also not receiving the extra supports they need in order to succeed." (Epstein, 2011)

What set me off was a recent article in our local media regarding a nearby district (I will not name the district or provide a link to the article) planning to require students to bring a laptop or similar digital device to school. This is one of our county’s more affluent districts (we have nineteen districts within our county) but not the richest by any means. However, it’s apparent that there is enough wealth and support in the community to back this type of mandate. My first reaction was “bravo” since I’m a staunch advocate for tech in the classroom, but the more I thought of it, the more my blood began to boil. How does one district get the opportunity to implement a 1:1 technology program at such minimal cost while districts in lower-income areas have to depend on providing the tools at a considerable cost? And why, if that particular district can afford to have parents foot the bill, do they continue getting nearly $300 more per pupil in combined state and local funding than our district? They have more, so they get more? Is that it?

Again, this is not about any one district or even a group of school districts (other than my own), but it’s more about the inequity that is perpetuated by ignorance about funding differences, acceptance without debate regarding traditional methods for K-12 funding, self-centered desires to keep taxes low, and archaic beliefs about the causes of poverty fueled by one’s own bias. (Biddler & Berliner, ASCD 2002) The people who determine the course of school funding are our elected representatives and they bear the brunt of the blame for perpetuating a cycle of impoverished school districts and inequity of opportunity for students. Unfortunately, many of our legislators that block any efforts to reform K-12 funding to make it more equitable come from areas that include affluent communities and districts that are financially well off in comparison. Right now, they control the agenda and they are the targets of my ire.

On top of it, Michigan’s governor and republican-led house and senate conspired to cut K-12 education at a level never before seen in this state. Since Proposal A was adopted in the mid-1990’s and the state took over most of the responsibility for school funding, thereby limiting a district’s ability to ask the local voters for more funds, combined state and local revenues for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools (my district) has actually dropped the equivalent of $33 per students since 1997, when adjusted for inflation. So not only have our legislators avoided addressing inequity, they haven’t even kept up with rising consumer costs.

I’d like to give you an analysis of what I see going on in Michigan. Here’s a quick snapshot of our district’s situation. Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, which is a one-square-mile school district in Wyoming, Michigan with 1,800 students, and shares a border with the much larger Grand Rapids Public School district, has the:

  • Highest federal poverty rate for children ages 5-17 in the county (36.7%) based on the 2010 U.S. Census.
  • Lowest total SEV (property value) per pupil in the county, and ranks 544 out of 551 traditional K-12 districts statewide ($72,173 per pupil). The next lowest district in Kent County has double the SEV per pupil.
  • Ninth lowest combined local and state revenue in the county ($8,374 per pupil).
  • Highest percentage of limited English proficient students in comparison to all Michigan school districts (40%, and 50.3% if you include former LEP students).

I include SEV, or the state-equalized-value of property, because school buildings, technology, athletic facilities, and other capitol projects are typically financed by voter-approved bonds repaid through higher property taxes. A district with a high SEV has more bonding capacity to support modern facilities and technology.

“Low-income children tend to be concentrated in low-income school districts, and these children often attend schools that receive far fewer resources per pupil despite their greater need.” (Epstein, 2011)

“Lack of funding for school buildings is a major flaw in most state funding systems because, as one of the largest costs, facilities are locally supported without state assistance. This compromises equity and makes the quality of a child’s school a happenstance of geography.” (Verstegen, 2011)

To illustrate a comparison from within our county, I use the most recent Michigan Top-to-Bottom list released this past August. Based on financial reports from the 2009-10 school year (Michigan Bulletin 1014), the five school districts (out of 19) in the county ranked the highest on the list have:

  • An average federal poverty rate of only 7.8%, one-fifth that of the Godfrey-Lee district.
  • A per-pupil total SEV (property value) of $241,300, three times that of Godfrey-Lee.
  • An average combined local and state revenue of $8,635 per pupil, which is $261 more than our district. In fact, the highest ranked district receives $9,202 per pupil, $828 more than Godfrey-Lee.


Kent County, Michigan Public School District

2010 U.S. Census Fed. Pov. % Ages 5-17

Total SEV Per Pupil

2009-10 Tot. Rev. Per Pupil

2009-10 Local & State Rev. Per Pupil

2011 State Top-to-Bottom Ave. School Rank

District A






District B






District C






District D






District E






District F






District G






District H






District I






District K






District L






District M






District N






District O






District P






District Q






District R






District S






Godfrey-Lee District






Top 5






Bottom 5








It’s not just our district that is experiencing inequity of opportunity by a K-12 funding system that is obvious blind to the varying needs of kids. Here are several key differences between our county’s top 5 ranked districts (average ranking of 91.4) and bottom 5 districts (average ranking of 41.3) on the state’s 2011 Top-to-Bottom list:

  • School-age poverty rate of 7.8 compared to 31.1 for the lowest ranked.
  • Per-pupil total SEV of $241,300 compared to $149,123.
  • Per-pupil combined local and state revenue of $8,635 compared to $8,643, a whopping $8 per student more to address the academic differences inherent in a low-income, high LEP school district (and even that’s somewhat inflated by one of the five lowest districts that has a per-pupil revenue that is $500 more than the other four).


“Inequity among districts means that children in lower-funded districts do not have access to the same resources—modern buildings, technology, highly effective teachers, supplemental supports, etc.—than do their peers in districts with higher levels of funding. Furthermore, low-income children and English language learners need extra resources to overcome disadvantages due to socioeconomic status or lack of English language proficiency. In many cases, not only are these children not receiving equal resources but they are also not receiving the extra supports they need in order to succeed.” (Epstein, 2011)

By the way, in the event you are considering trying to convince me that consolidating our district with the other three City of Wyoming-based school districts will answer all our troubles, let me point out that of the five highest poverty school districts in Kent County, four of them are in Wyoming. Grand Rapids is the fifth. The Wyoming districts collectively have the largest concentration of Hispanic students with limited English proficiency. And the new super-district would have a combined total SEV per-pupil that would still place it at or near the bottom of the county. Oh, and they also just happen to occupy the bottom of the rankings in the state’s Top-to-Bottom list, so please spare yourself the embarrassment and shelve your worn-out arguments about district consolidation.

But the comparisons within our own county pale when you take a good look at a number of school districts on the east side of the state, many of which have per-pupil revenues exceeding $10,000 and are also ranked high on the state’s Top-to-Bottom list. One such district is Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, which has an average school ranking of 93 on the top-to-bottom list, and:

  • Combined local and state revenue of $13,869 per pupil
  • Total revenue (including federal) of $14,692 per pupil
  • Total per-pupil SEV of $681,103

This district is not alone as there are many similar in Oakland, Macomb and other Michigan counties. I don’t want to dedicate the time or space in this post to a complete comparison.

So, what does this all mean? It means that Michigan’s school funding system perpetuates inequity of opportunity and promotes a continuing cycle of poverty. It means that even though all students are expected to master the same standards, demonstrate proficiency on the same state tests, successfully complete the same graduation requirements, and achieve the same level of college and career readiness, some are expected to do it despite the inequities created factors beyond their control and without sufficient resources.


“It costs more to educate children who come from low-income families, are English language learners, or who qualify for special education services to the same level as those children who do not have these extra needs.” (Epstein, 2011) 

However, as late as 2007, Michigan ranked only 37th in wealth neutrality when it came to funding schools and 44th in the funding gap between wealthier and poorer school districts.  In other words, schools in Michigan that have the most (money and resources) continue to get the most (money and resources) despite not having near the same obstacles that require greater resources and support. 

Kids in higher-funded districts with greater resources have access to new and modern classrooms, the best-equipped science labs, classes with lower teacher-student ratios, greater foreign language offerings, more advanced courses, the latest technology (regardless who pays for it), as well as expansive physical education and athletic complexes.  Kids in districts that receive less funding or lack resources to overcome socioeconomic, language, or special needs barriers to learning have little to none of this but are expected to achieve the same results.

“The achievements of disadvantaged students are more likely to suffer in response to inequities in school funding for two reasons: Those students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools, and they are more likely to be hurt by lack of academic resources when schools are underfunded.” (Biddler & Berliner, ASCD 2002)

Michigan’s leaders have got to set aside their personal bias and party preferences to finally address what I see is a growing inequity in funding and opportunity for our kids, who by the way are the future of this Great Lakes state. The recent financial disaster, expanding immigrant population, continuing flight from low-income urban areas, and increasing expectations in academic achievement for all students are exacerbating the inequities. The next time an elected official votes in favor of school funding that does not address the inequity, he/she is sending a message to our students, “Sorry kids, you’re not worth the effort or expense and will just have to do without.”

Our leaders have a moral imperative to address this and I intend to be part of what I hope will be a growing, loud vocal effort to push them in that direction.

To do anything less is at the very least immoral and at most, criminal.



Verstegen, Deborah A. (2011) Public Education Finance Systems in the United States and Funding Policies for Populations with Special Needs. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 19 (21). Retrieved 1/4/12 from

Roza, Marguerite and Miles, Karen Hawley (2002) Moving toward Equity in School Funding within Districts. A Presentation for School Communities that Work. Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Retrieved 1/5/12 from

Epstein, Diane (2011) Measuring Inequity in School Funding. Center for American Progress.  Retrieved 1/5/12 from

Biddle, Bruce J. and Berliner, David C. (2002). Universal School Funding in the United States. Educational Leadership, 58 (08). Retrieved 1/6/12 from






  1. Wow, I never thought of it the way you have presented it!

  2. Dave--right on target--I am sharing with Battle Creek Board and Superintendent and also with our legislators--I hope others will also share

  3. Dave, thank you for caring so much about our students and presenting their situation so accurately.

  4. Thanks! We need to keep this in the forefront and continue to advocate on behalf of our students for equity of opportunity. They're expected to achieve the same goals and thus they have the right to the supports and programs necessary to ensure that. It can't be accomplished with bake sales.

  5. You do a fine job of explaining here - but I'm stunned it's necessary to do so. I'm very glad you have decided to engage in this area. Come visit us in Idaho some time - visit the districts around the state, then come sit in my introductory science class at the University of Idaho. Within a month of start date, I can tell you the type of district any one of my students come from; they wear it like a badge. And an issue that follows inequitable funding is pronounced in this rural state. Our state Dept of Education has lowered the requirements for highly qualified teachers so the poorer rural districts can actually find science teachers to fill their classes. No more than a first year college course in a given science makes a teacher here "highly qualified" and it shows in the college freshman. A full letter grade in performance is seen between students who have a science teacher with the more usual 30 credit hours vs the teacher who may have only 8 credit hours.
    These issues play out in national problems - this inequitable funding of our schools is one of the underlying causes as to why we have a shortage of scientists and engineers. In practice, they must come from a mostly urban state and of the few who come from the majority of our other states, only those in urban communities will end up in those careers. It is much like the way we used to shut women out of those careers. We are limiting our possibilities to less than half of our student population.


Please feel free to leave a comment that is relevant to this post. Thanks!