Traverse City News and Events

Are State Education Policies Working Against Rural School Districts Like TCAPS?

By Craig Manning | Oct. 2, 2022

Statewide education policy in Michigan is drastically underserving school districts in the state’s rural communities. Such is the big-picture conclusion of a report published last month by the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Education. The report, titled “Educational Opportunities and Community Development in Rural Michigan: A Roadmap for State Policy,” is the result of an extensive three-year study that involved detailed conversations with superintendents from 25 “diverse and geographically representative Michigan rural school districts.” The findings indicate that superintendents at many rural districts not only feel unsupported by state education policy, but in fact find that state policies are actively impeding their ability to deliver effective and high-quality education.

While Traverse City is the closest thing northern Michigan has to an “urban” center, Grand Traverse County and its surrounding counties are still considered rural by United States Census Bureau definitions and other federal and state metrics. Per MSU, rural school districts – a category that includes Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) – “comprise over 88 percent of Michigan’s total land area” and more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts, but “enroll less than a third of the state’s K-12 students.” That imbalance of numbers and percentages creates a variety of challenges for how schools are funded, regulated, and supported in Michigan.

In compiling their report, MSU researchers asked superintendents to identify the biggest difficulties facing their schools and communities, as well as “how current state policies help or hinder their efforts to address these challenges.” Researchers then “studied in detail state policies pertaining to issues that superintendents identified as being most troublesome and thought carefully about policy changes that could better address these problems.”

MSU’s report zeroes in on four challenges as the most pressing for rural school districts: teacher recruitment and retention, broadband internet access, serving students with mental health problems, and declining enrollment and state funding. Superintendents for the majority of districts identified each of those four areas as either “extremely difficult” or “very difficult,” ranging from 64 percent for declining enrollment and funding to a whopping 84 percent for teacher recruitment and retention.

For each of those four key challenge areas, MSU also asked superintendents to rate how state policies were impacting their ability to find solutions. In each case, less than 10 percent of respondents indicated that state policies were actually helping. Instead, many superintendents said state education policymakers were either causing their biggest problems or hindering their efforts at finding solutions (chart pictured). For instance, 88 percent of rural superintendents told MSU that state policy was the cause of or a hindrance in solving problems related to declining enrollment and funding, while 84 percent said the same thing about teacher recruitment and retention.

“I think ‘hindering’ or ‘not helping’ is too far of a statement,” says TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner when asked to weigh in on the MSU findings. “You can’t really say that, when our foundation just got bumped up to $9,150 [per student] and when the state is putting multiple billions of dollars into the budget [for K-12 education].  Now, if you want to say that there are some elements of our funding model that are still not equitable to rural schools, I’ll support that comment all day long.”

In school funding, the foundation grant is the amount of per-pupil funding that most public school districts receive from the state each year. That number has increased significantly in the past decade, which VanWagoner says has absolutely been beneficial for rural school districts like TCAPS. For comparison, the per-pupil foundation grant amount was $7,026 per pupil during the 2013-2014 school year.

The per-pupil funding model dates back to 1994 and the passage of Proposal A, a piece of state legislation that was intended to shrink the school funding gap between districts with large property tax bases and districts with small ones. Under Proposal A, instead of each school district simply receiving the money from its own property tax base, the state sets a base per-pupil amount. Some districts exceed that amount with their local property tax bases, while some fall well below it. The state reallocates money from the former districts to close the gap for the latter districts.

MSU flags the per-pupil funding model as one of the biggest challenges for rural school districts, noting that school districts “have little control over funding beyond efforts to increase enrollment” and that the state’s minimum funding amount has notoriously “failed to keep pace with inflation.” From 2001 to 2016, for instance, MSU said that Michigan ranked dead last of the 50 states for school-funding growth.

For his part, VanWagoner has less of an issue with the overall concept of per-pupil funding than he does with what districts are expected to pay for with that money. Not all school expenses are paid for through the foundation grant. Many programs, such as special education and career and technical education, are made possible by what are called “categorical grants,” or additional funds allocated to school districts by the state, separate from the foundation grant, that are earmarked to be spent exclusively on specific programs. In other words, districts don’t have to expend precious per-pupil dollars on those things and can instead allocate the money elsewhere. Up until 1995, student transportation was a categorical, but Proposal A rolled it into the per-pupil foundation grant. The shift, VanWagoner says, created the single biggest challenge that TCAPS faces as a rural district.

The number one piece of the equation for me is transportation,” VanWagoner tells The Ticker. “We get nothing more in a transportation component than East Grand Rapids does, which doesn’t offer student transportation; or than Godfrey-Lee, which is a four-square-mile district. We’re 275 square miles, and there is no additional payment for transportation. Statewide, I think somewhere between $800 to $1,200 per student is the cost of transportation. For those that drive fewer miles it’s less, and for those that drive more miles it’s more.”

Per MSU, rural schools spend “nearly $200 more per enrolled student” on transportation than urban districts. And because that money comes out of the per-pupil funding pot, VanWagoner says it leaves less money for rural districts like TCAPS – or his former employer Alpena Public Schools, which sprawls across 604 square miles – to spend on other things.

“The amount we spend just on diesel fuel each year alone would do so much to help us in other areas,” VanWagoner says. “Districts that don’t have those expenses, what does that allow them to do with that extra money? It’s things like paying employees more, or reducing class sizes. It gives them a little bit of a competitive advantage.”

MSU’s study ultimately concludes that Michigan needs to trade its existing “universal state education policies” for “place-based, rural-conscious state education policies.” VanWagoner’s suggestion for transportation funding reform would fit the bill.

“There needs to be an appropriation or a categorical [in state funding] for transportation,” VanWagoner says. “A formula needs to be created, based on the amount of miles you drive and the amount of kids you have, and then that formula dictates the per-pupil payment you get for transportation. In my mind, that would go a long way toward solving the problem.”

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