For Michigan to have a successful talent pool in a thriving state with a strong economy, its leaders must focus on improving education for all students, particularly students of color, English learners and other underserved students who are behind their peers nationally.

That was the driving message that Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, delivered to the Small Business Association of Michigan’s Annual Meeting and & Small Business Summit last week.

“For many years, Michigan was considered a leading education state…but over the last 20 years, Michigan has really declined significantly compared to other states,” Arellano said.

Arellano cited statistics, including that Michigan is one of 18 states that has declined in early literacy since 2003, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The decline has been particularly stark for historically disadvantaged students, including students of color and low-income students, she said.

Michigan’s Black students ranked 31st out of 40 states on the 4th grade 2019 NAEP reading test. The state’s low-income students ranked 32nd. These gaps are predicted to grow worse amid the pandemic.

“No matter who you are or what you do for a living, I think everyone would agree that’s not a place where we want to be as a state for our public education system,” Arellano said. “And it’s not a place we want any of our students to be in terms of helping them prepare to be competitive, competent and confident in a global economy.”

Michigan’s unfair school funding system exacerbates disparities, she said, citing these statistics:

  • Michigan is one of only sixteen states providing less funding to poorest districts than to wealthiest districts – and is one of the bottom five states nationally for the funding gap between high poverty and low poverty districts (out of the 46 states included in the analysis).
  • Between 1995 and 2015, Michigan had the lowest total education revenue growth of all 50 states, and Michigan received a “D” for how well it targets funding to its high poverty districts, relative to its low poverty districts.
  • There is a $10,000 gap in average teacher salaries between Michigan’s highest income and lowest income districts.

That’s playing out in ways that are more harmful to districts with high percentages of students of color and those living in poverty. For example, the college remediation rate for students from Michigan’s poorest districts was over two and a half times higher than the rate for the wealthiest districts.

And it’s having a dire impact on all students’ future opportunities. By one estimate, the lifetime earnings of Michigan’s current K-12 students could increase by $27 billion if their educational achievement matched the national average, she said.

And yet, other states have demonstrated gains and shown promise in improving education, Arellano said, lifting up the state of Tennessee, which has invested significantly in educator talent and accountability for students’ learning. The state retrained more than 70,000 teachers and principals in college-and career-ready standards to improve the rigor of teaching.

“That has paid off huge dividends for kids across Tennessee,” she said.

She also cited efforts in Massachusetts and Florida that are making progress in closing the achievement and opportunity gaps for students of color.

There’s little doubt that Michigan’s stagnation in public education has a significant impact on our state’s talent base, economic development and tax base, she said. And that compounds the difficulties of business leaders to find the talent they need.

“It’s clear as day that we need to invest in public education,” Arellano said, especially for low-income, urban and rural students who have long been under-funded. She added that accountability and transparency must go hand-in-hand with investment so that public education dollars are well-spent to improve student outcomes and performance – and directed to students most in need. That means creating a strong system of fiscal accountability.

“The truth is that our talent base in many communities is going to be driven by all students,” she said, including Black students, Latino students, immigrant students, rural students and others who are often left behind by the public education system.