Kids count, but to judge from Michigan’s well-being data, not very much

David McGhee

David McGhee is program director for the Skillman Foundation.

Michigan kids are still fighting an uphill battle, especially when it comes to education. Though there are pockets of promise, there’s still much work to be done across urban, suburban and rural communities alike. From my experiences in the nonprofit, governmental and philanthropic sectors, I have seen that too many children lack the programs and supports they need to flourish.

Understanding the problem takes facts. That’s where the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national Kids Count Data Book comes in. The 2017 edition, released in June, ranks Michigan 32nd in the nation for child well-being, and in the bottom 10 states for education, ranking 41st. It is particularly concerning that Michigan is moving in the wrong direction on most indicators.

According to the Data Book, an alarming 71 percent of Michigan’s fourth-graders are not reading at grade level and 71 percent of Michigan’s eighth-graders lack proficiency in math. Though the rate improved slightly, 54 percent of Michigan children ages 3 and 4 did not attend preschool in 2013-2015.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, and when our kids struggle, our whole state suffers. Michigan lawmakers and the public and private sectors must take a collegial approach to do more to provide sufficient resources and support for schools and students.

In that regard, there have been several positive developments in the last few years. There have been expansions in early childhood programming, including preschool. And the state’s new third-grade reading law – though not perfect – outlines early interventions and strategies to help kids who struggle with reading.

In the just-passed state budget, there was increased investment in child care, more funding for at-risk students living in poverty, and support for the Pathways to Potential program. It is good to see Michigan’s fiscal policy begin to make the connections between early childhood development and future academic success, as well as the challenges that poverty poses on learning.

As Michigan continues to position itself to meet the ever-changing needs of children and families, the aforementioned can be recognized as a first down, not a touchdown. Many more strides need to be made. The 2017 Kids Count data shows that nearly half a million Michigan children – around 1 in 5 – live in poverty, and 17 percent live in high-poverty areas. Additionally, almost 700,000 Michigan kids – roughly one-third of the state’s child population – live in a family where no parent has full-time, year-round employment. While the state’s unemployment rate has improved, many parents are working multiple or seasonal jobs for meager wages and are one unexpected expense away from a financial crisis.

The book also reiterates that significant disparities exist for kids of color and those in high-poverty neighborhoods. Michigan has the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the country for African-American children and top-five highest for Latino kids. Children of color are more likely to attend high-poverty schools where resources are limited, classroom sizes are larger, walking to school can be unsafe and transportation is sometimes a barrier. Of fourth-grade students whose families have low incomes, 84 percent were not proficient in reading compared to around 60 percent of students whose families were not low income.

The 2017 Kids Count Data Book did have some bright spots. Far fewer children are uninsured in Michigan, thanks to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid, and in part to the Healthy Michigan Plan and the Affordable Care Act. There are markedly fewer births to teens than in previous years. And on-time graduation rates for high school students saw a 23 percent improvement.

In order to improve child well-being and ensure that families in our state thrive, Michigan must expand two-generation programs that support parents and improve economic stability for families that are struggling to get by. We have to invest in our schools, communities and successful practices, policies, and programs that support work, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Our slogan at the Skillman Foundation is “Kids Matter Here.” We understand that we have to support our kids and provide quality education experiences, vibrant communities and economic opportunities to build a better future for our state. We have been committed to such change for nearly sixty years, and don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

As we continue our work to improve the lives of children, we’re grateful for the state and national Kids Count Data Books produced each year, helping us further our mission, assess public policies and inform Michigan policymakers.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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Sat, 07/08/2017 - 6:55am

It would cost more money, the state doesn't like doing that unless there is a political payback from a contractor etc.

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 10:33am

The state doesn't do this because the state isn't in the job of sending someone into every home and making sure that parents are doing decent job of raising their kids... and wouldn't know what to do if they were! Unfortunately, this state has a lot of generally dysfunctional people except in the area of having kids.

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 11:14am

Very well written article. The last 8 years of unbalanced leadership at the state governmental level has taken its toll, My heart breaks when I read about the disparity between the races. This has been a long time in coming, but now is the time to continue the policies that are working and to expand opportunities for all.

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 12:06pm

Skillman Foundation and other have poured money into cities like Detroit. What has been the payback?! Detroit Schools spend approximately $13,500 per student (State, Local and Federal Funding Sources and that is a higher per pupil Spending than 45% of all other Michigan Districts) and we know the results for decades upon decades for the vast majority of students. The discussion needs to be put in a different direction...People Make Choices in Life and taxpayers are getting tired of seeing the lackluster Results. Look at Southfield Public Schools, every year they are in the top 10 of Per Pupil Funding, yet the y score Average at best on statewide achievement testing.

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 11:31am

Agree, Mark. More money into the wrong things does not work. It has to start at home. If kids had a stable home, by the time they got to school, with or without pre-school, they would learn just fine. Well, maybe not the way things are taught. What changed with teaching from the 1960's to now? The answer has to be there. Breakdown of the family occurred as well. If anything, teach kids in high school how to be parents or caregivers of children. Visit homes and teach parents. There has to be answers there - not more money for nuttin'.

Chris Carpenter
Mon, 07/10/2017 - 11:14am

My whole generation in 1960's did not go to preschool and we did well at math and science and reading. Here is a radical idea - how about the families - moms, dad, grandparents aunts and uncles teach kids to read and do math? That is how my kids learned and both were honor students with my daughter just graduating from Clemson University.

Cynthia Miller
Mon, 07/10/2017 - 8:26pm

I see some of the comments are from people who grew up in the 60s, when we had half the population. You could go to work out of high school then, and the entire tech generation hadn't yet begun. Things are very different today. Much more is expected of kids but the tests have been toughened as well. Failing children at the third grade level is destructive beyond measure, especially since Michigan now has the highest student to teacher ratio in the nation. Not a good stat but tells so much. We need more early ed., more help when children come in with handicaps in learning, more quality food (free for all so no stigma), and more time in school (without sticking the teachers with the extra duty.) Teachers now work enough hours that they really only get two weeks vacation without pay. Due to these salaried positions teachers work for free at least twenty hours per week. They now have almost no retirement (unless they pay for it), and many have no healthcare. So, along with little pay for advanced degrees, is it any wonder they simply pick off better paying jobs? Colleges are down 30% in the area of teaching at a time when more teachers are needed. You know how Michigan will fill the gap? Skip the demands of a well-qualified educator. (Look at substitute teachers' requirements if you don't believe it.)

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 7:18am

Cynthia- More money is not the answer, the kids are getting food from Head Start and throughout all improvement. Your advocacy has only resulted in decades of Comfortable Poverty and unfortunately there isn't a government policy that can break that cycle. The vast majority of children born to a single mother already in poverty never gets out of poverty and relies on government their whole lives.

Mon, 07/31/2017 - 1:55pm

Mr. McGhee is far too quick to blame this lack of education success on kids and families needing more "programs and supports". An equally valid interpretation of the trends in Michigan would be to blame poor 4th-grade reading scores and 8th-grade math scores on the pre-school and in-school programs for disadvantaged youth that have expanded even faster than achievement scores have dropped. We may see more students graduating from high school on-time but in 2016 only 23% of that larger group of graduates scored as "college and career ready" in English, reading, math, and science. That means that a whopping 77% of the high school class of 2016 had not "made the grade" in one or more of those 4 key areas, with as few as 35% of graduating students performing acceptably on the ACT science sub-test.

Certainly the intentions behind early education, enrichment, and remediation programs are good, but the actual results we have been achieving with those programs are deeply problematic. It appears that even Michigan's well-off suburban school districts are failing to teach over half of their students well enough for them to meet grade level expectations in grades 3 through 8 or be ready to do college-level work by the end of their 11th-grade year. In addition to being an overall 41st in the nation for academic accomplishment, Michigan's school districts include the very worst district in the entire nation, while we spend more money per pupil on education than 29 other states in the US. After a blip during the Great Recession, Michigan's Pre-K through12 education funding has steadily increased since 2011. Over the past 30+ years, Proposal A, our statewide system of funding for education, has made Michigan education funding far more equitable across school districts than the purely-local property tax funding mechanisms seen in many states with better outcomes. But the demands of our public schools' retirees have been growing even faster, forcing us into wage stagnation and increasing pension and health insurance contributions for current teachers.

Like David McGhee, I don't have any clear answers to this severe academic shortfall, but it seems very plain that more money and more "programs" haven't been successful.