Without State Support, Michigan’s Schools Will Continue to Crumble

March 1, 2016

By Amy Auletto

Across the nation, school buildings are aging and in need of significant repairs and renovations. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report in 2014, asserting that 53% of the 1,800 public school buildings they surveyed have repair needs that will require $197 billion to address. That averages out to about $4.5 million per school. The NCES report found that water quality is unsatisfactory in 5% of schools, lighting is lacking in 16% of schools, and ventilation is insufficient in 17% of schools. In sum, the report found schools are struggling to meet the basic needs of students and staff.

Hamtramck High School is 81 years old. The average school's life expectancy is only 60 years. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsPhoto Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1935, Hamtramck High School is now 81 years old. The average school’s life expectancy is only 60 years.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Michigan is no stranger to this issue. Schools in Detroit are falling apart, prompting teacher sickouts; schools in Flint have toxic levels of lead in their water; and Pontiac recently experienced issues with malfunctioning heating systems, with some classrooms reaching 90 degrees while students had to wear winter coats in others.

A 2005 report released by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan and The Education Policy Center at Michigan State University found that Michigan had an unmet capital need of $89 billion and that a quarter of this need was concentrated in five high-needs districts – Battle Creek, Detroit, Flint, Muskegon, and Saginaw. As schools continue to age, this need will most certainly continue to grow. While there are a number of factors contributing to these deplorable school conditions, a main contributing factor in Michigan is the lack of state support for school facilities.

Michigan is One of Eleven States That Does Not Fund School Facilities

Most states provide some sort of financial support to local school districts for building construction and maintenance. Michigan, however, is one of eleven states that rely on local property taxes for capital expenditures. While the state does not directly provide funding for school facilities, they do offer the School Bond Qualification and Loan Program. The state program offers bonds to local school districts for capital expenditures. Unfortunately, as C. Philip Kearney and Michael Addonizio point out, the state only issues bonds when local districts have approval to levy funds through property taxes. Local districts are often prevented from investing in facilities because of a lack of support from voters. And if districts do get sufficient support from voters, the amounts districts are approved for vary dramatically by district, with wealthier districts qualifying for much larger bonds. A 2005 report by David Arsen and colleagues explains that taxable property values in Bloomfield Hills are almost $550,000 while this number is under $50,000 in Detroit. This means that if the two cities tax residents at the same rate, West Bloomfield will be able to generate over 10 times as much revenue as Detroit.

This funding system has created some serious issues of equity for districts in Michigan. In 2009, William D. Duncombe and Wen Wang ranked states according to how equitable their capital funding systems are and Michigan did not do well – ranking 40th out of 48 states. Furthermore, Kearney and Addonizio argue that students living in districts with lower property values (and as a result, lacking school buildings) are often lured to other districts or schools of choice with more impressive facilities. As a result, poor districts with high capital needs also suffer from losses in enrollment. This results in less revenue for instruction since Michigan schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis.

Lessons From Other States

Michigan is in the minority when it comes to how capital expenses are funded. However, looking to other states may provide some solutions for Michigan. Duncombe and Wang found that 38 states do have some sort of state aid for school facilities. This support can take the following forms:

  • Lump-sum aid (7 states) – a predetermined amount is granted to each district independent of local contribution
  • Open-ended matching (19 states) – states match local spending on facilities without a limit to the number of projects they will fund
  • Close-ended matching (3 states) – states match local spending on facilities up to a certain point
  • Both lump-sum and matching aid (9 states) – states provide lump-sum aid as well as either open-ended or close-ended matching

This study found that states with some sort of lump-sum aid were the most equitable and that exclusively relying on matching perpetuates inequities. Going forward, it may be in the best interest of Michigan’s most economically disadvantaged children to pursue this funding structure as well.

Michigan’s schools are continuing to age. Hamtramck’s high school is now 81 years old; Benton Harbor’s high school turned 92 this year; and in Detroit, the average school is more than 60 years old. According to NCES, most school buildings are abandoned after 60 years of use. It’s time for Michigan to step up and start addressing this critical issue. Schools districts can no longer rely on local property tax revenues to fund facilities. Children’s basic needs – clean water, heating, and safe facilities – are not being met and this is most certainly taking a toll on their educational outcomes. Michigan’s students deserve better.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu