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State education board urges Legislature to transform how schools are funded

If Michigan wants its students to compete academically with students in high-performing states, it may need to change how it funds schools.

That’s the conclusion of a draft report presented to the State Board of Education this week. That report, states that Michigan is now in the “bottom tier” of states in academic achievement, and that there is “broad agreement that the system of organizing and financing education in Michigan is in need of fundamental change.”

The report comes on the heels of the Bridge series, “The Smartest Kids in the Nation,” which is cited in the State Board report. In that series, Bridge reporters visited states that are among the national leaders in academic achievement, and states that had lower classroom learning than Michigan a decade ago, but had instituted reforms that have spurred academic achievement.

Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee and Florida took different approaches to improving student learning, but all invested in specific priority areas, including funneling more money to classrooms with at-risk or low-performing students.

Not all of those states spend more overall on education than Michigan - Tennessee and Florida spend significantly less – but they all focus spending on reforms they believe will help student learning, such as ensuring early-grade reading proficiency, early childhood programs and extra resources for low-income schools.

“We have to spend smarter,” State Board of Education President John Austin told the Board in its meeting Tuesday. “We have not been putting the money in strategic investments that other states have.

“All the high performing states spend money differentially; they put money where it is needed, not equal dollar per pupil.”

State Board Member Eileen Weiser said education reform in other states has worked when it is considered bipartisan. Reform in Michigan, where the State Board of Education is majority Democrat, the Legislature is majority Republican and the governor Republican, would likely need to follow the same middle-of-the road path. “In Massachusetts, it took a Republican and a Democrat to put together a commission, and (the commission) was driven by business,” Weiser said.

That reform began in 1993, when Massachusetts’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were close to the scores in Michigan. Today. Massachusetts has the top schools (by NAEP scores) in the nation; Michigan’s scores in English and Math hover around 38th.

The board is expected to receive a draft report at its December meeting that outlines possible reforms.

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