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Why Michigan schools fail, and what to do about it

What’s so amazing about our political system is that the solutions to some issues are not only clear, they clearly have overwhelming public approval ‒ yet our leaders remain utterly immobile and incapable of taking action.

Just take two examples, one national and one from Michigan: Nationally, guns in schools ‒ and here at home, fixing our pothole-strewn roads. People plainly want guns forbidden in schools.  Michigan voters clearly want our disgraceful roads fixed.

Yet nothing happens.

Perhaps the saddest example, however, is the unwillingness of our political leadership to do something about the disgraceful decades-long deterioration of Michigan school performance.

Related: Scores in one West Michigan school district typify state’s malaise
Related: Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.

The data are compelling and alarming: Michigan kids are not learning at the same rate as kids in lots of other states.

“Michigan is dead last among states in improvement in math and reading between 2003 and 2015, according to an analysis of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Test results from the NAEP … offer the most reliable cross-state comparisons of academic achievement,” according to an article by Ron French in last week’s Bridge Magazine.

Over those dozen years, 49 states showed at least some improvement in test scores; Michigan’s all declined, according to an analysis by Brian Jacob, the Walter Annenberg professor of education policy at the University of Michigan.

“By just about any measuring stick, the state is losing the race for educational excellence,” reporter French concluded.

Why no action on school improvement ‒ especially when improving the schools is often cited as the number one policy priority for Michigan voters?

There are lots of candidates for blame.  The subject of school reform is intrinsically complicated, made all the more so by being dominated often by self-interested adults ‒ teachers’ unions, charter schools, educational bureaucracy.  Summoning up the political will for change is never easy, especially when thinking about school policy is increasingly dominated by partisan political ideology.

Issue Guide: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
Issue Guide: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

There’s also never enough money, especially when most school decisions are denominated in dollar terms.

But to my way of thinking, the real reasons for our long-term failure to fix the schools are two, both structurally important and both hidden from the daily cut and thrust of public debate.

1)   The basic school funding mechanism.  Ever since the 400-page Proposal A was passed in 1994, the basic method of funding schools was a “foundation grant” (currently around $7,631 per pupil) paid by the state to school districts based on the number of students in the district.

The catch is that the grant attaches itself to the student; if Sally moves from Farmington to Plymouth schools, the $7,631 foundation grant moves with her.  Advocates for Proposal A argued that this would be an incentive for schools to improve; bad school districts would start losing students (and money) to other districts.

Quite right.  But here’s the unintended result.  Faced with a competitive funding environment (including charter schools, who pick off dissatisfied families and gain foundation grant revenue), school districts are reluctant to talk openly about their failures for fear of setting in motion student flight and financial disaster.  That’s why there is so much lip service from school people about the importance of school improvement ‒ but so little actual change.

There’s no incentive on the upside and lots of risk on the downside for schools to fess up and publicly confront their long-term problems of poor and declining performance.

2)  The basic structure of the state’s school system, which looks as though it was systematically designed to fudge accountability for persistently deteriorating results.

Consider the org chart of our school “system:” Around 539 separate and locally elected school districts, plus an elected State Board of Education, the candidates for which are almost entirely unknown and picked by the major parties for political reasons.

Grand Rapids summit: West Michigan leaders join chorus for state education reform
Detroit summit: Getting past politics to give Michigan the schools it deserves

They do appoint a State Superintendent, who “runs” the Department of Education. But there’s also a governor and a legislature with power over the purse. There are also at least four legislative committees with appropriation and policy authority.

All this is a perfect recipe for a design that practically guarantees policy and administrative chaos. There is no clear locus of accountability, no place where coherent policy can drive decisions, no place for angry parents to insist on reform and improvement.

But both these design characteristics (flaws) are firmly set in Michigan’s Constitution, changeable only either by ballot or by calling a Constitutional Convention.  I’ve always been leery of a new Con-Con, mostly because I worry about some single-issue crazies messing up what is actually a pretty reasonable document.

But the current policy environment is a mess.  The subject of school improvement is intrinsically complicated, shot through with competing adults who disagree.  The structure of the school system in Michigan is incoherent. That’s one reason why so many people simply throw up their hands when confronted by the problem.

But solving it is so vitally important to our future … and the future of our kids.  Can the job be done by coherent, coordinated legislation? Perhaps … but that would require a sustained, well-financed, public-spirited, powerful citizen-led movement to fix our schools.  Whether that can be created and whether it can flourish is something that ‒ hopefully ‒ will be decided in the election this fall.

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