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Improve education with equal funding, higher standards

Publication date: May 29, 2016

by Kati Haycock and Amber Arellano

This week at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan leaders will gather to have a serious conversation about some of Michigan’s most pressing collective challenges, including the most important to us: improving public education.

In many states like Michigan, that conversation has been stalled by a false debate — the debate about whether money is what’s needed to improve our public schools and close achievement gaps for students of color and low-income children.

Our organization has long known that money alone is not the sole answer for ensuring all of America’s children are taught at high levels of achievement. High expectations for all students; equitable access to effective teachers; and accountability for school performance are all critical — and proven — levers for raising achievement for all students.

Yet we would be naive to believe that money doesn’t matter in ensuring poor students and African-American and Latino children have access to the strong public schools that they need and deserve. Certainly money matters, especially when used well.

School districts with more resources can use those funds to attract stronger teachers and principals, and to offer students more academic support. Such supports and access to effective educators are some of the most important ingredients of improved learning.

So we hope Michigan resists the temptation to have a “and/or” conversation about money and school improvement. Leading education states such as Massachusetts show both more investment in low-income students and greater accountability and high-leverage systemic improvements are needed to solve the state’s education crisis.

There should be no doubt about the severity of that crisis. National assessment data suggest the state is witnessing systemic failure across racial and socioeconomic groups, as Michigan’s rank continues to decline in many key learning indicators compared to the rest of the nation.

Michigan’s white students, who ranked 13th in the country for fourth-grade reading in 2003, rank 49th today. For anyone who believes that dramatic decline is about increased unemployment and poverty, think again: Michigan’s white higher-incomestudents now rank 50th for fourth-grade reading compared to their peers nationwide.

Kids of color and poor students are especially — and unacceptably — underserved. Michigan’s African-American students are at the very bottom of the U.S. for African-American achievement in both elementary reading and math.

And the state’s Latinos, once a bright spot compared to their counterparts elsewhere, have seen a precipitous decline in relative performance. If things do not change dramatically — for these children and all other young Michiganders — the state’s aspirations to become a “top 10” state will never be achieved.

And while Michigan spends about at the national average on education, the state ranks near the bottom in the fairness of its funding. The state’s highest-poverty districts receive about $664 less per student in state and local revenues than the state’s lowest-poverty districts do, according to a 2015 Education Trust report.

That means the Michigan students who need the most supports to succeed are given the least — a situation that is unacceptable to anyone who cares about equal opportunity for all, a healthy democracy and a viable American — and Michigan — economy.

In leading education states, the business community has been critical to ensuring state leaders get on a positive track — and then stay on track — in the implementation of research-based, high-leverage improvement strategies that pay off for all students. That’s why the Education Trust-Midwest has invited business leaders and organizations to be part of a growing initiative, Michigan Achieves, and help push for data-driven solutions to the state’s educational crisis.

Michigan students are just as talented and capable of learning at high levels as the children of other states. Michigan leaders of all sorts — those in business, as well as education leaders, civil rights leaders and political leaders — need to join together to ensure the state’s public education system improves dramatically. That will require equitable funding, but it also requires high performance standards, accountability for results and the implementation of research-based best practices.

Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest and Kati Haycock is CEO of the Education Trust. 

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