Opinion: Finding Solutions to Michigan’s Education Crisis

Invest in education recovery

New evidence from researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities, as well as my organization’s recent report, underscores how much learning has been lost for many students during the pandemic, with urban and rural students often demonstrating much greater learning losses.

State leaders and school districts can do a lot to address student learning gaps — and fortunately, there are resources available to do so. As of January, about 80 percent of the America’s Elementary and Middle School Rescue Plan’s Emergency Fund III dollars were unspent in Michigan — or about $3 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The deep need—combined with significant, scarce resources—provides a historic window of opportunity for state and district leaders to work together to invest in the most leveraged strategies to ensure that the learning of all Michigan students is caught up and accelerated . Indeed, without strong leadership and strategic efforts, a generation of Michigan children may lack the lifelong skills and opportunities they will need to thrive in the global knowledge economy.

We urge state leaders to support a statewide plan that will use federal and state dollars to provide evidence-based strategies to address non-completion. For example, high-dose intensive instruction is a research-based practice that can help students catch up and thrive academically.

My organization is among those advocating for this plan, which should include not only government investment, but also robust mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of dollars and a strong government system of fiscal transparency and oversight to ensure that dollars are spent use as intended.

Find a fair funding system

Michigan has one of the most regressive school funding formulas in the country, according to state and national studies. The state has underfunded its students for more than two decades, and the state’s academic performance is largely a reflection of that. We are indeed in crisis.

Michigan should look to the nation’s leading education states for effective new models of school finance systems like Massachusetts, which is making great strides in creating an equitable school finance system that supports all students.

Indeed, Massachusetts’ funding system includes an index that measures levels of poverty concentration that affect schools’ ability to support student learning. Some Michigan leaders call this type of approach an “Opportunity Index,” because such indexes are designed to create greater opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live.

The opportunity index makes sense for Michigan. With such an index, Michigan would create a weighted funding formula that would provide additional funding from 35 percent to 100 percent for students living in poverty, divided into 12 groups determined by poverty concentration. We are advocating for 80-100 percent more funding for English learners to properly support their learning as well.

Students with disabilities also need more funding. We strongly support increasing school district reimbursements to fully fund the needs of students with individualized education programs, including funding special education costs and specialized transportation costs. The state also needs to make more investments in rural areas to account for their higher transportation costs, especially in high-need school districts.

Here’s the opportunity: Michigan has a $3.1 billion surplus in the school aid fund, including $1.1 billion in current funding and $2 billion in one-time spending. That surplus can be used now to begin supporting the Opportunity Index — and greater investments in English language learners and students with disabilities — as state leaders consider a long-term overhaul of school funding that would move Michigan toward an equitable system for funding for all students.

Commit to transparency, oversight

All of these proposed investments are long overdue, but they must be made thoughtfully and strategically — and that means they must be coupled with a strong new system of fiscal transparency and real oversight across the country.

Currently, Michigan lacks a system that allows the public to easily assess whether dollars targeted to students of specific backgrounds are reaching those students at the school level and the effectiveness of school-level spending in impacting student learning.

Lessons from California show why it is imperative for Michigan to create such a system. In recent years, California has overhauled its school funding system and dramatically increased its level of investment in its public education system. However, growing evidence shows that dollars are not being spent as intended. In an evaluation of California’s Local Control Funding Formula, researchers found that only about half—or about 55 cents—of every dollar earmarked for high-needs students was actually spent in schools with the most high-needs students.

A strong system of fiscal transparency and accountability across the state is needed more than ever with the unprecedented federal funding provided to school districts through emergency aid for elementary and middle schools. Whitmer and legislative leaders must ensure that those dollars — meant to provide a lifeline for schools suffering the incredible disruptions of the pandemic — are spent on research-backed, high-leverage practices to improve student outcomes.

That’s why we’re among the organizations that have joined the Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity coalition, calling on lawmakers to pair major new investments in public education with strong, evidence-based systems of fiscal accountability and transparency, just as leading education states are doing.

Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light in all the darkness.” Amidst the dark and disturbing data, there is light.

It’s clearer than ever that Michigan can and must embrace this important moment — and give all students a fair chance to succeed in school and in life. The Opportunity 10 program outlined in our new report will do just that. We are optimistic that our state leaders will make the most of this favorable time.

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