Want to fix schools? Start with equal funding.
As a teacher and administrator who has spent more than 13 years serving children in Detroit, I wholeheartedly understand the frustrations of students, parents and educators in the city today. It is a travesty that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education we continue to accept segregated schools. Although schools can no longer base enrollment on race or ethnicity, we now have schools that are highly segregated by social class and socioeconomic status. According to the Michigan Department of Education finance records for the 2015-2016 school year, Detroit receives $7,434 in state funding per pupil, while school districts in more affluent communities often receive significantly more. For example, Grosse Pointe receives $9,864, Birmingham receives $11,924, and Bloomfield Hills receives $12,004 in state funding for each student.
Teachers in urban communities are working under increased levels of accountability at the local, state and federal levels, yet they are not provided with the appropriate tools, such as adequate instructional materials or technology for all students. Not to mention the unsafe conditions for both students and staff. How are students supposed to learn and be prepared to compete academically with boarded-up windows and mold infestations in their schools?
While some would argue that schools in communities with high poverty rates often receive additional federal funding, I counter that those funds, while helpful, typically come with stringent guidelines and penalties for not following those guidelines. This leaves districts with high percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch at a disadvantage in ensuring that all students have adequate staffing and supplies such as books, technology and lab equipment. Just two years ago, I taught at a high school with a significant level of low-income students where we did not have enough history books for one class, let alone one for every student.
While nearly all teachers are overworked and underpaid, teachers in communities like Detroit are often working even harder for less compensation and fewer benefits, in their effort to ensure students are prepared to compete academically with students from more affluent schools. These circumstances often lead to teachers having higher health insurance premiums. In my previous district, instead of bringing home a paycheck, some employees would owe the district $11 per pay period just to cover the cost of health care premium co-pays.
Challenging conditions make it more difficult for districts to attract and retain top educators.
Detroit Public Schools has 180 teacher vacancies. I am sure that other districts are facing similar shortages and staffing turnover because of similar working conditions. Schools with higher turnover often have lower academic achievement rates and students from schools serving a high concentration of students eligible for free and reduced lunch often enter post-secondary opportunities significantly less prepared than students from suburban communities with larger budgets and per-pupil funding allowances. We must ensure that students with the most needs have the teachers with the capacity to support their learning.
As the state Legislature works to develop a plan to “fix” Detroit’s Public Schools, I agree that many school districts, not just Detroit, should right-size their infrastructure because of declining enrollment. However, neither legislative plan, in the House or the Senate, address the inequity in per-pupil funding for schools in Detroit. The Senate plan, which includes the Detroit Education Commission, has drawn opponents from the charter sector. But public school advocates also should be concerned about an appointed authority with no real accountability to parents and community members. Instead, we should look to create equity and access for all students, not a Want to fix schools? Start with equal funding.: