In the 2017 Michigan Budget, At-Risk School Aid funding should be fully funded to help our children improve their educational achievement and attain self-sufficiency. Children living in poverty often require additional services and resources, which come at a greater cost to the schools. Because of historical and systemic discrimination, children of color tend to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, creating more challenges for them. Fortunately, Michigan’s school funding formula includes a component that recognizes the extra costs associated with educating children who have been raised in very low-income families and now attend schools with high numbers of children in poverty. Unfortunately, the At-Risk School Aid program has not been sufficiently funded by the Legislature in years. We need to ensure that children are not being held back from academic success because of their economic situation, inadequate housing, poor nutrition and struggling schools, and funding the At-Risk program is the perfect mechanism to prevent this.
The At-Risk program, which provides state funds to schools based on the number of children receiving free school meals (kids at 130% of poverty, or $26,117 for a single parent with two children or $31,525 for a married couple with two children), is an excellent tool for targeting funds to districts with high numbers of children at risk of poor educational achievement. However, funds can be targeted toward any “at-risk” student, including victims of child abuse or neglect, pregnant teenagers or teenage parents, students not meeting certain proficiency standards, students that are chronically absent, homeless students, English-language learners, or students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The program focuses on ensuring all students are proficient at reading by the end of third grade and that all high school graduates are ready for college and careers.
The At-Risk program has only been fully funded for two years since it was first implemented in the 1994-95 budget year. For the current year, At-Risk funding is $134 million below the level needed to fund the formula set in law and the cumulative shortfall since 1995 is nearly $2 billion.
At full funding of the At-Risk program, school districts receive 11.5% of a district’s foundation allowance multiplied by the number of students eligible for free breakfast, lunch or milk in the prior year. In years in which full funding is not budgeted, the amount provided per at-risk student is prorated, which results in districts receiving less than provided in the statutory formula. This budget year, even after the At-Risk program was increased by $70 million, the allocations are reduced by about $186.17 per student, which means that school districts are seeing over 20% reductions in their amounts. This has a detrimental effect on many districts, including large ones that receive a significant amount of at-risk dollars and small ones that may have a high percentage of their students receiving free lunch.
Full Funding: While an additional $70 million was provided to the program in this year’s budget, neither the governor nor the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee recommended any additional funding increases to the program in next year’s budget. While the House did provide some increased funding, it was for the expansion of the program to a small number of high-risk districts rather than to reduce prorated allocations statewide. Without more funding, schools will continue to see prorated allocations.
Expansion of Program: The At-Risk program has one major drawback—schools that are out-of-formula or hold-harmless districts are not eligible for funding. These are school districts with combined state and local per-pupil operational funding that is higher than the basic foundation allowance. This unfortunately leaves out a number of districts that have a high percentage of their students receiving free lunch. For example, the Baldwin Community School District, which is the district that covers the largest area of Lake County, has over 85% of its students eligible for free lunch but receives no at-risk funding. Covert Public Schools in Van Buren County has nearly 95% of its students eligible for free lunch but receives no at-risk dollars. The House Appropriations Subcommittee recommended adding an additional $18 million to at-risk student support so that hold-harmless and out-of-formula districts that had more than 50% of their prior year membership students eligible for free lunch would be eligible for at-risk dollars. If this were to occur, it must be done with new dollars to the program so other schools would not see cuts to their at-risk funding.