Who’s Wrecking Michigan’s Public Education?

imagesCAXF4BIHWhat’s wrong with public education in Michigan? Plenty, but it’s not what GOP lawmakers would have us believe.

GOP Education Agenda 101:

The House Education Committee Chair, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons, seems to believe it’s teachers that are to blame, her viewpoint is well-evidenced by her coarsely unprofessional remarks earlier this year likening educators to swine. The lack of statesmanship and basic decorum shocked the halls of every school in Michigan.  The very fact that GOP leadership appointed such an woefully under-qualified freshman lawmaker to this critical position speaks volumes of their disdain for the American tradition of public education.

Judging by their actions, Republican lawmakers must think that the problem is too much money spent on education, given their unrelenting efforts to divert resources away from the School Aid Fund.  In the wake of Gov. Snyder’s 2011 brazen robbery of Michigan’s K-12 education fund to pay for his $1.8 billion corporate tax give-away, GOP lawmakers are feeling newly emboldened to slash state revenues by enacting multiple random tax cuts in ignorance of their core fiscal responsibility of providing basic funding to schools and municipalities.

While it’s true, these same lawmakers dearly love their tea party shenanigans, it seems the GOP’s irrational agenda to castrate unions (particularly the MEA) remains the true impetus behind their drive to defund public education — and it is as much to blame for failing schools as the other big problem in Michigan, childhood poverty.

Realities under GOP policies:

A strong case can be made that the rise of charter and cyber schools are harmful to Michigan public schools. They monetize children, marginalize union workers, abuse parental support and damage the fabric of communities — along with degrading their school district’s credit ratings. Yet, they are just one factor among many making a bad situation worse.

Of the 550 school districts in the state, most are grossly under-funded. A few wealthy pockets can be found in Oakland County, hauling-in between $11,000 and $12,000 in per pupil allowances, while most districts struggle on around $7,000 each. Five years ago, 27 districts were identified by the state as in possible fiscal stress. This year it’s doubled to 55 — that’s 10 percent of Michigan’s schools, and after Munetrix thoroughly crunched the numbers they found the number actually closer to 63 treading water.

Under GOP leadership, fully 63 districts are being stalked by the emergency manager boogie-man. Just this week, Ecorse Public Schools sweated-out a near-miss with possible emergency management. Several years ago, Suttons Bay School’s management wielded the emergency manager cudgel to squeeze contributions and concessions out of their community, even though their debt was insufficient to warrant a dictator. Now we know they would have simply been dissolved under the new GOP law designed to deal with gnat-sized deficits.

Currently, Michigan has three school districts under emergency management, and one operating under a consent agreement, which is for all practical purposes the same as having a state-appointed dictator — the school board acquiesced in advance to all state demands to avoid direct management. Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights have emergency managers, while Pontiac took the consent agreement.

Those four districts comprise nearly 4 percent of Michigan’s students, whose families are now cut-off from the kind of meaningful participation that invests a community in a positive relationship with their public school.

Realities of Michigan Childhood Poverty:

These Michigan schools share another commonality. Their students are much poorer than the rest of the state. The best measure of childhood poverty in Michigan are the numbers collected by the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The state average for eligible students is currently 48 percent. Wow — that is way too high. But, it’s nothing compared to the districts under dictators — Detroit: 81 percent, Pontiac: 73 percent, Highland Park: 82 percent, and Muskegon Heights: 88 percent. (Update: The Southern Education Foundation just issued a report that shows the state average at 46 percent, but their numbers are from 2011, the data Democracy Tree used is from 2013, and computes to 48 percent — Michigan has gotten worse.)

The effected districts range between $7,000 and $7,500 in state per pupil funding, with three of them residing within just miles of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, who enjoy just under $12,000 per student.

The charter school mania that is gripping the Detroit area is only making it worse for these children. Jeff Padden, of Public Policy Associates, ran the numbers on how well charters serve children living in poverty and found that Michigan fits the national data — they are often abysmal. He found that not all charters are bad, but those that are low performing are a disaster, particularly for children from poverty. Just this week, one such charter was forced to close in Detroit due to under-achievement and bad fiscal management. This same school was so bad they had been forbidden to teach grades K-6 a couple of years earlier.

A direct link between poverty and low test scores:

GOP talking points on education are rife with blaming teachers and the public education system as a whole. They love to cite scores on standardized tests, comparing outcomes to that of other nations — without the context of the cavernous gap between the haves and have-nots in the United States– a factor that is not an issue in the nations we compare ourselves to. Education researcher and writer Alfie Kohn put it this way:

We seem to have crossed that threshold with the claim that U.S. schools are significantly worse than those in most other countries.  Sometimes the person who parrots this line will even insert a number — “We’re only ____th in the world,  you know!” — although, not surprisingly, the number changes with each retelling.

Test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status.  Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not.  And we have a lot more poor children than do other industrialized nations.

A breakdown of how varying socio-economic groups fare on math and science demonstrates the impact of poverty on measurable achievement:

Country Child poverty based on reduced school lunch programs (US)[13] 2007 TIMSS score (4th grade)[13][15]
Hong Kong 607
Singapore 599
United States < 10% 583
Taiwan 576
Japan 568
United States 10%–24.9% 553
Russian Federation 544
Slovakia 496
United States > 50% 495

These are shocking numbers that should inform Michigan lawmakers, and the nation as a whole. But, in the grips of Tea Party ignorance driven politics, a vast awakening is unlikely any time soon.

Dr. Jim Taylor put it best in his article titled Are Public Education Chicken Littles Wrong?

The U.S. has one of the highest poverty rates among developed countries, about 22% of our population live in poverty compared with, say, Finland and Denmark whose poverty rates are under 3%. Further, about half of the 40 million students in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced lunches. America has, by far, the greatest income inequity among developed countries as well. It also has the greatest demographic diversity, with more than 25% of public school students who speak English as a second language. Plus, we have among the highest rates of low-birth weight and among the worst health care among developed countries. All of these societal and economic factors have an immense impact on the over-all quality of our public education system and the test results that are used in international comparisons.

It is clear, the problem with Michigan public education is both GOP policy and systemic poverty, and they go hand-in-hand.

Amy Kerr Hardin


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