If you take a drive through the back roads of a town like Albion, chances are high that you will see at least three confederate flags before you see a gas station. Situated south of I-94 between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Albion lost much of its population, as well as its main source of jobs and tax revenue, when the Malleable Iron Works Factory shut down in 2002. Many of the 8,000 residents who remain are African Americans who traveled north to work at the factory and lacked the resources to move after it closed.
Much of the white population that remained commuted to nearby Marshall and Battle Creek to send their children to school, depleting the per student aid that Albion High School received further.
By 2013, only 100 students remained at the school, and the Albion High School was shut down by the state with a $1.1 million deficit. The remaining students were sent to Marshall High School, with Albion’s elementary and middle schools being annexed to Marshall Public Schools in 2016.
Marshall was given $6 million in state money to help the transition, but tensions between Marshall and Albion remain, and many parents are concerned that their children are no longer getting quality educations
Since the passage of Proposal A in 1995, Michigan’s schools have been funded largely by a portion of the state sales tax, and by property taxes, which are collected in the state’s School Aid Fund. The state gives funding to districts on a per-pupil basis, linking funding to school enrollment. So many public school systems have seen revenues plunge as their populations dwindle.
According to a study done by Michigan State University, Michigan ranks last in the nation in school funding growth per year. The state also ranks 48th in per-pupil spending, and has repeatedly cut funding for at-risk and special needs students. Michigan ranked 50th in student performance from 2003 to 2015.
Michigan has some of the highest paid teachers in the U.S. — the average Michigan teacher makes $58,000 a year, more than $20,000 more than his or her typical peer in Arizona making $35,000. But the average teacher’s’ salary has gone down since 2009. Younger teachers are being hired over more experienced teachers in order to keep that number down across the state, and charter schools pay teachers less than public schools.
The percentage of students enrolled in pre-K-12 public schools is almost identical in rural and urban districts. (A gap emerges at the college level, where a larger proportion of urban students matriculate.)
Dropout rates are also similar, especially in cities with lower-performing school districts. The drain in K-12 resources has been exacerbated by the state Legislature’s decision to divert millions of School Aid Fund dollars to the state’s colleges and universities.
Politicians describe such diversions as “borrowing.” But none of the more than $4.5 billion has been taken from the School Aid Fund for higher education in the past nine years has been returned.
Michigan is considered in need of intervention from the federal government for the lack of funding being sent into special education services across the state. At-risk and special education programs are $700 million short of the funds required to serve their students. And although the state is required to provide special education services to students, many schools take this money out of their general funding and get reimbursed just 28 cents on the dollar.
Despite these common challenges, the political disconnect between rural and urban communities in Michigan seems only to be growing. Parents in both kinds of communities fear the education system is failing their children, but disagree about who can address that failure most effectively.
Rural participation in the 2012 election cycle was slim compared to more urban areas, but rural voters overwhelmingly supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney over Democratic incumbent Barack Obama. Four years later, rural turnout in support of President Donald Trump grew was three times as large as the numbers that supported Romney during the 2012 election.
Since his election, Trump has appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has requested over $7.1 billion in education cuts for the next fiscal year, including significant reductions in funding for special education programs. DeVos says the current education system is not serving students, and that the money should be put toward charter schools, even though many students currently attending public schools do not have access to charter schools.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer D-MI has proposed a significant increase in the per-pupil allowance for students in districts throughout the state. Schools in wealthier districts in Michigan still spend about 60% more than schools the poorest districts, and Whitmer says the latter need more help, wherever they are. Surely urban and rural school districts who are losing population and tax revenues can both use the state’s help.