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Opinion | Fix the damn schools, Michigan

Michael Addonozio

As teachers and students across Michigan return to classrooms this fall, school funding remains unsettled as the governor and legislative leaders continue haggling over the 2020 budget. 

While these budget talks appear to center on our urgent need for increased road funding, the important matter of school funding seems to have been relegated to a lower priority. This is bad news for Michigan’s future prospects and will only continue our current years-long educational slide and economic underperformance.

Our stunning state decline in K-12 education has been well-documented. As a notable MSU report recently revealed, between 1995 and 2015 Michigan was dead last nationwide in K-12 revenue growth and 48th in per-pupil terms. 

This underfunding has taken its toll: According to a 2017 Brookings-UM study, in 2015 Michigan ranked 41st in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math proficiency, and dead last in proficiency growth since 2003. And, while our educational outcomes were sinking, so was our economic performance. In 1994, Michigan ranked 18th in the nation in per-capita income. By 2014, we’d fallen to 42nd.

Without adequate investment, our public schools cannot prepare our students for economic success or civic life. 

They also cannot properly staff their classrooms. For example, new reporting documents the recent explosion in the use of long-term substitute teachers in Michigan public schools that serve low-income children — precisely the schools that need our most skilled teachers. Yet these subs are not required to hold a four-year college degree and often have little or no education training. To make matters worse, the Michigan Legislature in 2018 lowered standards for substitute teacher permits from 90 hours of college credit to 60.

In addition to more qualified classroom teachers, our schools need more aides, psychologists, social workers, librarians, nurses and attendance officers, along with updated technology and educational materials.

Back in February, school supporters were encouraged by Gov. Whitmer’s 2020 school-aid recommendations calling for a $507 million increase in total aid, including substantial hikes in support for special education programs, services for economically disadvantaged students, and English Language Learners, along with more funding for early childhood and career-technical education. These recommendations closely followed the findings of the 2018 “Costing Out” study done by two nationally prominent school finance research firms and sponsored by the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

These sound recommendations should not be swept aside in the 2020 budget deliberations. Legislators need to face a basic fact: Our poor and sinking K-12 outcomes, rising higher education tuition, our crumbling roads and in some cases fouled drinking water reveal a yawning gap between the costs of vital public investments and the revenue currently raised by our antiquated and unfair tax system.  

Our current educational deficits and crumbling infrastructure are not the inevitable consequence of a faltering economy. They are the result of deliberate policy choices to keep taxes and public investment low. Michigan has the resources to “fix the damn roads” and adequately invest in our public schools, providing real educational opportunity to all our children.  

We now need to summon the political will to do so.

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. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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