Opinion | Fix the damn schools, Michigan

Michael Addonozio

Mike Addonizio is a professor of education economics and policy at Wayne State University.

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.

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Tue, 09/10/2019 - 9:54am

Thank you for your commentary. I have been saying this to our governor and legislators for years. My children had the benefit of good schools and adequate funding. My grandchildren do not. I realized within the past ten years, since we have had an illegal, gerrymandered state government, simple minded, "no new taxes" republicans have taken over state government. There is no consideration for the future of the this state, their children or grandchildren.

This is all about "what is mine is mine" and to heck with everyone else. Michigan was once a proud state with much to offer. Now, our grandchildren must move out of state for any opportunity.

Education is the foundation for any society. The last ten years has been all about conniving to keep power by one party, and now they will do everything in their power to stop a Governor looking for solutions.

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 11:06am

Bernadette are you saying that our schools have been on a slide only over the last 10 years??? Not over the last 30 or 40? Given that the US has been at the top of the pile of industrial nations in educational spending per pupil do you think we are getting our money's worth?

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 5:47pm

Well besides Public school money illegally going to charter schools>>>> For ever dollar from the lottary going to the schools a dollar it taken out of the school fons paid to with our taxes!!!

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 7:45am

Exhibit A ? Sure but doesn't the charter student mean one less kid costing the school to educate? You think the school should be paid for kids it doesn't have to educate?

Steven Camron
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 10:08am

Matt, generally it doesn’t work like that. So for example an elementary school with 300 students loses 20 to charters schools. The loss is usually spread out enough to be negligible at reducing costs: I.e. 2 from first grade, 6 from third grade, 4 from fourth grade, etc, not enough to reduce even one teacher! But the revenue loss is substantial - five-to-seven thousand per student! Do the net effect is a reduction in revenue with no offsetting re-education in costs.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 09/10/2019 - 10:46am

"Antiquated and unfair tax system"?

Michigan's state budget has been increasing at a rate greater than inflation during the previous administration.

Not exactly a symptom of a taxation problem.

State government instead needs to learn to set priorities when it comes to creating budgets, much like everyone else has done.

Something that Prof. Addonizio should be aware of given his economics background

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 1:08pm

Yes, it's both antiquated and unfair. Our regressive flat tax makes it impossible to raise meaningful revenue from the wealthy without hurting the poor. The richest 20% of the state currently pays a smaller portion of their income in taxes than any other bracket, while the poorest 20% pays the most. So yeah. Its antiquated, unfair, and exactly the sort of bad policy libertarians with support even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


Wayne O'Brien
Tue, 09/10/2019 - 10:56am

When McKinsey and Company (large international business consulting firm; 60 offices worldwide, clients: Fortune 500 and 1000 companies) took up the study of best performing schools worldwide, they reached three main conclusions, stating that "Three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers, 2) developing them into effective instructors and, 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child." The sooner community, business and legislative focus is fully shifted to these three issues (based on ample, solid and exceedingly well-researched evidence), the better Michigan's schools and economy will function and the more successfully Michigan's students
will achieve and thrive.

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 5:50pm

You do know that during the vietnam draft kids who parents hd money went to collage,,, Problem was that most class were way to hard for them to pass EXECPT teaching degrees!!!!! They will be out of the system soon and the real teachers will be able to take over!!!

Wed, 09/11/2019 - 7:37am

We have lost the battle for getting the right people to become teachers, so many that might have considered that as a career possibility are looking elsewhere as evidenced by the decline in the number of people training to be teachers in Michigan, instead we are getting a lot of long term subs without the adequate training to teach.

Steven Camron
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 10:17am

Wayne, good points. But just what does this statement mean:”3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child." I’m glad that you mentioned the “system” involved. When we use language like this it incorporates a complex web of intricacies: school personnel characteristics, professional development, training and education, leadership qualities, democratic community processes, financial supports, social-economic status of the community, cultural expectations, etc. Schools do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a complex cultural framework. Many moving-parts need to operate smoothly with some semblance of harmony - difficult at any time, let alone in politically fractured times!

Steven Camron
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 10:18am

Wayne, good points. But just what does this statement mean:”3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child." I’m glad that you mentioned the “system” involved. When we use language like this it incorporates a complex web of intricacies: school personnel characteristics, professional development, training and education, leadership qualities, democratic community processes, financial supports, social-economic status of the community, cultural expectations, etc. Schools do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a complex cultural framework. Many moving-parts need to operate smoothly with some semblance of harmony - difficult at any time, let alone in politically fractured times!

Wayne O'Brien
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 9:50pm

Steven's list of confounding factors is thoughtful, accurate and completely surmountable. Evidence and explanation is carefully provided by McKinsey and Company on the education portion of their website. Because it was consistently found to be actualized in the best performing schools in the world, they listed 3) "...system's ability to deliver the best possible instruction for every child." In order to learn even more about the specifics of how just one of those best performing countries defined and accomplished this over the course of a 30 year reform process, consider reading Pasi Sahlberg's 2010 book, Finnish Lessons. Many of the reforms they undertook could inform Michigan education reform policies.....changes would be necessarily drastic, but why would this not be considered a given
considering the facts about Michigan schools that have been effectively presented in a long series of recent Bridge journalistic offerings?

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 12:15pm

What is the impact on your list of woe from the manufacturing job and income implosion and the population exodus Michigan experience form 2000 through 2010? My hunch is this much bigger than anyone can imagine.

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 5:38pm

Professor Addonizio is wrong, it isn't the money [the taxing] it is the kids.
How many of can remember our teachers and the schools we attended and who was at the top and who didn't do well. The test of this is who takes the tests that everyone complains about, who does the learning, who has to do the homework to learn? It isn't the teachers, it is the students because no one can do the learning for them.
My reality was, the same kids did well no matter who was the teacher, the same kids did poorly no matter the teacher, and those of us in the middle were there no matter the teacher. The reason for the difference was the individual students. Ask the kids at the start of the year who would do well, who would do poorly, and who would be in between and they would pretty much pick the same ones because they knew it was the students mattered, the ones that did the studying did well, the ones that stayed awake in class but didn't do the homework were in the middle, and the ones who did nothing for class and disrupted the class did poorly.
Money will not change anything if it isn't spent on improving student desire to learning, their willingness to sacrifice all other distraction to learn, and actually making the studying happen.

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 5:45pm

I have a slightly different view of the situation. I do not blame government nor do I blame the school system. I find that the blame overwhelmingly falls on the parents. Good education unfortunately has to be fought for because a parent cannot and should not rely on any government to look after them. It's our job as parents to sit down with our children and teach them what they aren't learning in school. Thinking that someone else, other than the parents, is going to look out for your child in any way when it comes to schooling is a foolish notion.

Wed, 09/11/2019 - 11:18am

This is true but also something politicians shy away from, you won't hear them talking about "irresponsible" parents but instead complain about the teachers and other factors.

Lou Steigerwald
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 9:15am

Dr. Addonizio is one of the best professors I ever had. He is deeply knowledgeable about Michigan, its economics, and how Michigan's laws function. He is also not a liberal voice, rather he was most often more of a moderate Republican. I note this in order to say that, for those who have studied what is happening in Michigan's schools, there is agreement across the aisle that Michigan is underfunding its schools. Dr. Addonizio is also correct to point out that if Michigan continues its underinvestment in its schools, colleges and other infrastructure, it is foolish to think things will get better. Michigan has lagged behind other states since the recovery in nearly all areas. Michigan voters should be angry that too many folks in Lansing seem ok with that, based on the lack of will to address any of it. No one likes to pay taxes. However, no one likes to live in a state with chronic qualified employees shortages, bottom of the barrel schools, and crumbling infrastructure either. Our falling population speaks to this. Unless and until this is addressed in a meaningful way we will continue to have the same results. Shame on Lansing House and Senate members who continue to sit on their hands when it comes to having the gravitas to make needed changes.

Kelly R
Sat, 09/21/2019 - 1:12pm

Michigan will continue to crumble in every way imaginable while we have anti-government extremists in control of state government. Their willingness to demonize teachers and other public servants all in the quest to de-fund basic government services is destroying us. We need to reduce the impact of money in politics and get rid of gerrymandering. We tried to get rid of gerrymandering last fall. I hope it succeeds.

Martha Dahlinger
Tue, 09/24/2019 - 9:35pm

Fix the Damn Schools by Prof. Addonizio summaries well the condition of Michigan Schools and many of the reasons for this sad condition.