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Opinion: Michigan needs a school system that supports all students’ needs

As this unprecedented school year ends, Michigan educators are continuing to grapple with the many challenges of how to help their students catch up and accelerate following the great disruption of learning due to COVID-19.

Yet for teachers serving underserved students, the challenges will be far greater. Addressing the needs of all students, but especially the most vulnerable, will be a key question for educators, state leaders, policymakers and all stakeholders over the next few years to ensure that every student has a bright future.

Dave Meador, Amber Arellano
Dave Meador is the co-founder and chairman of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. He serves as the vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy. Amber Arellano is the executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. (Courtesy photos)

Michigan leaders should start by looking at what’s working in top education states, like Massachusetts, where leaders came together pre-COVID in an historic effort in 2019 to close the opportunity and achievement gaps among their students.

We can do the same in Michigan, but it will take commitment and courage to ensure that all of our students – and our state – are on a path toward recovery and acceleration. 

Investment and Accountability Needed 

While there have been many thoughtful conversations recently on how to use state surpluses and one-time federal stimulus funding to address the gaps, state leaders must simultaneously focus on this critical conversation: how to transform Michigan’s unfair school funding system, which is one of most regressive in America. 

This is especially important as the pandemic disproportionately took its toll on vulnerable students, including students with disabilities, children in both rural and urban areas, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds. But it’s also because the COVID-19 hardships experienced by underserved students – from unequal digital access to food insecurity to lack of resources, quality curriculum and school supports – build upon long standing inequities in Michigan’s education system that have worsened the opportunity gap. 

In fact, our state has long been among the worst in the nation for gaps between wealthy and low-income districts. The result: tens of thousands of students lose out on opportunities they deserve – and our state is left without a sufficient talent pool to ensure a strong workforce for the future.

Indeed, Michigan's educational crisis has been growing for many years – and it deserves a bold response.

Learning from top education states

Top education states recognize that all students and schools deserve funding and resources to ensure every student has the opportunity to achieve at high levels. They understand that funding systems must be designed to close persistent and troubling opportunity gaps. 

In Massachusetts, leaders did just that, approving the 2019 Student Opportunity Act, an overhaul on how the state funds its school that includes a significant investment to address longstanding education inequities. The legislation purposefully directs more funds to school districts that serve greater percentages of lower-income students and English Learners.

Massachusetts' landmark legislation calls for investing up to two times as much money for low-income students in its highest-poverty school districts than students with no additional needs. It did so, acknowledging what research says about the funding levels needed to close opportunity gaps for these children. 

The result: Massachusetts strategically targets its funding for low-income students, helping to ensure the neediest students get the support and investment that they need to succeed. 

Students with disabilities also require extra supports that are mandated by federal and state law. However, the supports, such as counseling services, medical services, occupational therapy or other special education requirements, are required regardless of the cost or the school district’s ability to pay. And while Michigan districts receive partial reimbursements for these services, the funding is grossly inadequate to support students with additional needs. Michigan’s graduation rates for students with disabilities are far below where they should be. For the 2019-2020 school year, the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities was 59 percent. This compares to Michigan’s four-year overall graduation rate of 82 percent that year.

Michigan should follow Massachusetts' lead by holding its schools accountable for improving student outcomes with a strong state accountability system. And our state must ensure new investments are spent effectively on the students for whom they are intended to benefit through a strong system of fiscal accountability and transparency for those dollars – something that Michigan currently lacks.

Supporting Students and a Strong State Economy 

Michigan's lack of investment in the needs of every student has a dramatic impact not only on students' learning, but also Michiganders' future earnings and the state's economic development. Reading levels of third-graders, for example, is a predictor of a child's academic success, as well as their future employment opportunities and income. 

That's why Michigan cannot afford to continue to be one of 18 states suffering declines in fourth-grade reading since 2003, while national fourth-grade reading scores have been improving. Our state also is in the bottom ten states for Black students’ performance for fourth-grade reading. 

Michigan’s school inequities must not be allowed to continue. If we want Michigan to be a top ten education state – a stated goal by organizations across the state including the Michigan Department of Education – then every student should have access to a rigorous curriculum and rich course offerings to compete with world-class states and countries. That will take strong leadership committed to both equitable investment and to holding our education system accountable for dramatically raising results.

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