Education is foremost on the minds of state residents, that much is clear from The Center for Michigan’s 2014 survey of public priorities for the state, released this week.
Roughly four-in-five Michigan residents said in Center-led Community Conversations around the state that improving college affordability is an urgent priority for Michigan.
But that’s hardly the only educational priority that drew overwhelming support in the report, Michigan Speaks. LINK to URL Roughly four-in-five also said in conversations that improving K-12 student performance, intensifying education and job training, and ensuring students complete high school are urgent priorities was well.
College affordability is notable because it produced nearly the same amount of urgency in statewide polling (78 percent) as in conversations (80 percent), and because it is deemed an urgent priority among all worker, racial and income groups.
On the other hand, when residents were asked what the state’s top spending priority should be if more money became available, the top pick was improving K-12 education, which far outpaced seven other options, including roads.
The Center, which publishes Bridge Magazine, gleaned the views of more than 5,500 residents from more than 160 community conversations across the state and through polls and online conversations on the issues residents considered most pressing for Michigan.
No matter how the questions were asked, other high-profile issues generally turned up a distant second to education.
For example, a plurality of residents - 42 percent of conversation participants and 31 percent of poll respondents - said intensifying education and job training is a higher priority for Lansing compared with seven other options offered: direct economic development; reducing taxes/shrinking government; streamlining regulation of business; investing in roads, bridges and infrastructure; investing in place making and increasing the minimum wage.
Dedrick Martin, superintendent of St. Johns Public Schools and former superintendent in Ypsilanti, has experienced the gamut of educational and financial challenges; from a merger of two school districts, to rural and urban poverty, to high and low-achieving schools, and majority-black and majority-white schools.
He said the focus on test scores and college preparation over the past decade has led to the depletion of vocational job training programs in many high schools. Though in recent years there has been a resurgence, of sorts, with schools using dual enrollment opportunities for high school students to gain associates degrees or certificates that make them more employable after graduation, he said.
Students and the economy in Michigan need both – better education and more job training, he said.
“It’s refreshing and I’m not surprised,” Martin said of the poll results. But he said, “I’m a little saddened that a lot of the legislation we’ve seen put in place has not really addressed these issues except through tentative means, short-term means more focused on finance as opposed to what it will truly take to provide a high-quality education for our kids.”
K-12 and college focus
While college affordability drew the most consistently high support as an urgent priority for the state, when residents were asked directly which education issue needs the most attention, the results were mixed. In Community Conversations, improving K-12 student performance came out on top. In polls, college affordability won out.
Preoccupation with college costs is understandable, given that that Michigan ranked a lowly 45th among all states in college affordability, according to the 2013 report “Trends in College Pricing,” published by the College Board.
There is certainly no shortage of evidence that college debt is burdening students nationally, and particularly in Michigan. Consider:
- Student loan debt in Michigan grew 57 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to the Michigan Higher Education Institutional Data Inventory.
- The average debt of 2012 graduates from public and private four-year institutions was $28,840 in Michigan, making it one of the top-10 states for high student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, based in Oakland, Calif.
- In 2012-13, the state of Michigan spent less money on higher education - investing $3,962 per pupil in public colleges and universities compared to a national average of $6,646 per pupil, a report from the College Board shows.
- Since the Great Recession, state government support for colleges and universities in Michigan was cut by 28 percent while college costs increased.
Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, which represents the state’s 15 public universities, said that if public colleges and universities get an expected increase of 6 percent next year, then tuition increases can be held to 3.2 percent or less.
“We’re on an unsustainable path. We can’t continue increasing tuition by 5, 10 percent,” he said. Michigan’s fundamental problem is that the state is ranked 36th in the number of people with a four-year degree or higher, he said. “If we don’t change that, we’re going to be one of the poorest states in the country. End of story.”
In Community Conversations, some participants said they want state government to stop cutting funding for colleges and universities. Their suggestions for addressing college affordability include reprioritizing public spending - as well as students taking more personal responsibility regarding financing their education, said Amber DeLind, outreach director at The Center for Michigan.
Many said they see opportunities for young Michiganders in vocational and technical fields, and believe students, their families, and K-12 schools must recognize that not every child’s path will be a two- or four-year college or university degree, DeLind said.
Invest more in K-12
When given a choice In conversations and in polls, residents indicated that spending more on K-12 schools is a higher priority than increased spending on college and universities, government, health/social services, local government revenue sharing, natural resources/environment, public safety, transportation/roads. When asked what would be their first priority for increasing spending, 46 percent of conversation participants said K-12 education, and 39 percent of poll respondents agreed.
Conversely, when asked to choose an area where the state should decrease funding, the fewest numbers of respondents suggested K-12 schools: only 1 percent of community conversation participants suggested decreasing spending on schools and 3 percent of poll respondents agreed.
The statewide school funding law, known as Proposal A, passed in 1994, implemented a state education tax to finance k-12 schools. The law does not allow local taxpayers to tax themselves to raise additional money for general operations in their schools.
David Arsen, an economist and professor of education at Michigan State University, said the poll results suggest that property taxpayers in Michigan would likely give schools more money for general operations in local millage votes, if they could.
“It goes against the idea that it’s just the education establishment that’s clamoring for more” education spending, Arsen said. “If it was left to local voters, there would be much higher spending on education.”
Eighty-one percent of those who answered survey questions at community conversations said improving K-12 education performance is an urgent priority, and 14 percent said it was a medium priority. Of telephone poll respondents, 58 percent said improving K-12 performance is an urgent priority and 33 percent called it a medium priority.
The findings come on the heels of a recent Bridge analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that shows Michigan’s fourth- and eighth-graders score below national averages and are improving at a slower pace than students in most other states.
John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, said the Center’s survey results match the available evidence: In order to catch up to other states academically, Michigan needs to spend more, especially on low-achieving students.
“The public clearly supports investing in K-12 as a priority. … We need to reinvest, spend more,” he said. “Second, we need to put the money in the right places - support for kids that are in poverty which is what other states are doing.
“And third, we need to end this insane move to school choice and charters where we allow new charter schools and new cyber schools to open without any quality controls, competing for funding and everyone is losing.”
The poll results are useful information, he said.
“I hope it provides the political momentum and ammunition for the changes in the way we organize and finance education in Michigan that we must make if we’re going to improve outcomes,” Austin said.
Sen. Howard Walker (R-Traverse City), chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on K-12, school aid and education, said residents’ desire for increased spending on education is consistent with what legislators are proposing for next year.
The Senate suggested cutting millions of dollars in so-called categoricals, funds restricted for special programs, and instead allow all schools to split that cash and use it for general operations. Walker added that proposals to pay an increased amount of retirement costs to the state pension fund on behalf of schools will reduce costs for districts.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” he said. “School aid fund revenue is increasing. In years to come, what we’re doing to pay down the (retirement) liability will pay real dividends.”
African-American respondents were among those most likely to say that improving education performance and improving high school and college completion rates are urgent priorities.
African-American students in Michigan ranked 26th in the nation in 4th-grade math back in 2003. In 2013, they were tied for last in the nation among the 44 states reported NAEP scores.
“The poll is a reflection of the last 15 to 20 years, you’ve seen K-12 [performance] go down in Michigan. You can’t separate the achievement gap from the inequality gap in services and priorities,” said Chris White, who is African-American and co-chair of the Coalition to Restore Hope to Detroit Public Schools, an advocacy group.
“Whenever they start something new like the EAA (reform school district), we flock to it,” White said. “We’re willing to experiment with choice and charter schools. We’re willing to move out to another city just so our kids will have a better education.
“We know there’s a problem.”
In community conversations, participants said this election year they expect candidates, once elected, to take considerable action to make college more affordable, improve pre-K-12 student performance and increase high school completion rates, DeLind said. The long-term consequences of continued inaction are frightening to many.
“I think in the last four or five years,” one participant said, “Michigan has done a good job of gutting opportunity for the working class and increasing the cost of education.”