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As Michigan students struggle, report urges fair funding to reverse slide

student reading
Under a proposed school funding system, districts would receive between 35 percent to 100 percent more in state funding for students from low-income homes. (Rachel Wisniewski for Chalkbeat)

A new report on Michigan’s struggling education system says dramatic change is needed to stem academic declines and ensure all students are receiving a quality education. 

Among the top recommendations in the report: Michigan should adopt a school funding system that is more fair and equitable than the current one, which distributes state funding on a per-pupil basis but has provisions that still allow for wide disparities in spending between poorer and wealthier districts.

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In the report released Tuesday, the Education Trust-Midwest, an education research and advocacy organization, predicts Michigan’s academic rankings will decline or remain stagnant by 2030 in some key areas. The rankings are based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam taken by a representative sample of students across the nation.

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Michigan’s rankings on this exam have slid over the last decade. And there are troubling signs of what could come, after scores on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) and NAEP showed sharp declines from pre-pandemic levels. On the NAEP, Michigan’s eighth-grade math scores ranked 26th in the country. By 2030, if current patterns hold, Michigan would fall to 29th. In fourth-grade reading, the state ranks 43rd and is projected to remain there in 2030. 

As additional evidence of the need for urgent action, the organization points to an October report from researchers at Harvard University and Stanford University that shows how much learning loss occurred in individual districts across the nation since the pandemic. In Michigan school districts with high concentrations of students from low-income homes (Detroit, Saginaw, and Lansing), students lost the equivalent of about a year or more of learning. By comparison, students in wealthier Michigan districts such as Northville and Bloomfield Hills lost the equivalent of less than 10 percent of a school year. 

The Education Trust-Midwest report recommends a big shift in how schools are funded, but that would require a big investment by the state. The organization is suggesting, for instance, that the state adopt a funding system that provides between 35 percent to 100 percent more in state funding for students from low-income homes, with the higher amounts going to districts with the most vulnerable students. The state funding system already provides additional money for such students, but not nearly as much as the report suggests is needed. 

The proposed system for funding schools would address “profound inequities” in Michigan’s current school funding system, said Jen DeNeal, director of policy and research at the organization.

“We know that the experience of being a low-income student in Okemos and Birmingham is different than the experience in the Upper Peninsula or in Lansing,” the report said.

The report also recommends additional funding for students who are English language learners, and students who receive special education services.

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The report doesn’t provide a cost estimate, but officials from the organization point to past estimates that suggest such a system could cost the state an additional $3 billion.

In addition to the funding recommendations, the Education Trust-Midwest researchers are also calling for using federal COVID relief dollars to provide intensive tutoring and extended learning time in schools; strengthening early childhood for the most needy children; prioritizing teacher recruitment and retention; ensuring all students have access to rigorous coursework; and identifying students with dyslexia so they have the support they need. 

You can read all of the recommendations and the full report here.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief at Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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