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Study offers financial, policy road map for Michigan education reform

Tight budgets likely are stunting learning in Michigan classrooms. And while there are policy steps that can help, Michigan won’t become a top-10 education state without changes in state funding and more cooperation among groups with a stake in public education in Michigan.

That’s the conclusion of an exhaustive analysis of Michigan’s public schools conducted by Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan public policy research firm in Lansing. The report makes wide-ranging recommendations for turning around Michigan’s schools, offering an education reform road map for policymakers that begins with home visits for newborns and continues through expanded college advising initiatives.

Released today but provided to Bridge for review earlier, the report mixes an array of policy proposals with a sobering portrait of a school system hobbled by state funding that hasn’t kept up with inflation, and political leaders and interest groups that haven’t found common ground for the type of far-reaching reform taking place in other states.

“We’ve made recommendations that would move Michigan forward,” said Jeff Guilfoyle, vice president of Public Sector Consultants and one of the authors of the report. “But if you’re talking about moving Michigan to a top 10 state, that’s probably going to cost more money.”

[Disclosure: For eight years, Public Sector Consultants has provided policy research and public engagement consulting services to the nonprofit Center for Michigan, the parent company of Bridge Magazine. Bridge and the Center had no role in the creation of the PSC report. And PSC had no role in the writing of this article.]

Highlights of the report, which can be read in its entirety here, include the following findings:

State funding levels dropped as teacher retirement costs rose

In 2000, Michigan ranked 10th in the nation in per-pupil funding. Today, per-pupil funding has dropped to 25th in the nation. Meanwhile, the amount spent per pupil on teacher retirement costs nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, after inflation was taken into account. The net result, according to the study: the money actually available to school districts for classroom operations, after adjusting for inflation and subtracting retirement costs, is 12 percent lower today than it was in 2005. (To return school funding to adjusted 2005 levels would require another $1.5 billion in the education budget)

And then student learning dropped. Coincidence?

During the same time money available to classrooms was dropping, Michigan student achievement was falling behind other states, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card.

School funding is a politically polarizing subject, Guilfoyle admits. “There’s always the question of how efficient schools spend their money,” Guilfoyle said. “Even if you believe they were somewhat bloated in the beginning, given the amount of fiscal pressure we’ve put on schools over a 10-year downturn, to think it has had no negative impact on falling (state academic) rankings … is unrealistic.”

It’s not all about money. The report makes numerous recommendations that its authors say will improve student learning but don’t involve raiding Fort Knox. Such as ….

Getting to kids early to make a difference

The study praises the expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s high-quality, state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The $130 million expansion, championed by Gov. Rick Snyder and chronicled by Bridge Magazine, was the biggest preschool expansion in the nation.

The report recommends home visitations that link new parents with trained service providers (such as a nurse or social worker), a proposal that is included in new early childhood funding in the 2016 budget.

The report also recommends more funding for high quality child care through the Child Development and Care program, and high-quality, state-funded preschool for low-income 3-year-olds.

Fair, strong teacher evaluation

The report recommends strong teacher evaluations, suggesting that after “six years working to improve the educator evaluation system, including several years researching and piloting evaluation tools,” it was time for Michigan to “provide local districts and teacher with certainty” about evaluation expectations. The Legislature is still debating a final teacher evaluation bill.

A key to successful evaluations is consistent and reliable training for evaluators, which will require state funding, according to PSC.

Change the school funding formula

The most far-reaching reform suggested in the report is a revamp of Michigan’s school funding formula, which currently is based primarily on a simple per-student allotment. The report suggests the state allocate more funding for students whose education generally costs more, such as low-income and special education students and students for whom English is a second language. The report also suggests providing more money for high schools, with their expensive science programs and athletic departments, would help make school funding more equitable.

Bridge wrote about the school equity funding debate last year.

This seems like a radical idea in Michigan, but it’s actually quite common. Thirty-five states weight their funding formulas for low-income students, students with a disability, students learning English, or a combination of those factors.

How much does it cost to educate a child in Michigan? Nobody really knows. But Michigan may know soon. A bill passed in December requires the state to conduct a comprehensive study to determine the amount of money needed per pupil to provide an education needed to meet Michigan’s academic standards. So-called “adequacy studies” are not terribly popular with Republicans, however, and there is some movement to repeal the adequacy study legislation before its findings are completed.

College, college, college

More kids would enroll, and succeed, in college with a few policy tweaks, PSC argues.

Michigan high schools need more counselors, and more counselors trained to offer advice on college. The state ranks 45th in the ratio of students to counselors. In most schools, counselors do not have the time, nor often the training, to provide college counseling. The report recommends an increase in counselors to address the issue.

Bridge wrote about a slightly different option this March: placing college advisors in every high school.

The report urges school districts to offer more opportunities to earn college credit while still in high school. “Early college credit attainment can also help significantly reduce students’ costs for college,” PSC writes.

Not much will happen without cooperation

So far, Michigan leaders haven’t coalesced around a set of reforms.

“Too often, education policymaking in Michigan appears to be a zero sum game with special interests fighting for limited resources,” the report states. “The overall goal of improving the education (of) our children is easily lost in a battle between vested interests.”

Massachusetts, often described as having the best K-12 system in the nation, turned around its schools beginning in 1993 with the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Tennessee, once near the bottom among the nation’s school systems, now has the fastest-growing test scores in the country. Tennessee’s turnaround began in 2009 when the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), working closely with a powerful coalition of business, education, union and community leaders, developed rigorous academic recommendations for state schools.

“The reality is that Michigan is far more likely to be successful if all of the key players are unified in trying to achieve a common goal and vision aimed at improving the education of our children” the report concludes.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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