Michigan poised for 'educational grand bargain' under new leadership

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
John B. King Jr., president and CEO of the Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education, gives his remarks during a panel discussion on putting Michigan on the path toward overcoming inequities.

Detroit — Michigan could be poised for an "educational grand bargain" with its new state leadership, former U.S. Dept of Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said Wednesday.

King was in Detroit to talk with education leaders from across Michigan about equity in education and putting Michigan on the path toward overcoming those inequities at the Opportunity for All: 2019 State of Michigan Education Conference at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American history.

"I think Michigan is well positioned for a grand bargain like the Massachusetts grand bargain," King said.

"That is about more dollars, more dollars equitably distributed so they are getting to the highest-need students and a thoughtful approach to accountability and investments in teacher preparation, teacher support, improving the teaching of reading, improving services to English language learners."

The Massachusetts Grand Bargain, approved by state lawmakers in 1993, overhauled that state's funding formula for schools to invest more in low-income students across the state in return for a stricter accountability system and higher standards for students, teachers and schools, education officials said.

In 2013, Detroit has its own "grand bargain," which consisted of $366 million funded by 12 foundations and $100 million from the Detroit Institute of Arts to shore up city pensions and protect DIA art during the city's bankruptcy.

Michigan has a new Democratic governor and attorney general and a state board of education that consists of six Democrats and two Republicans. It is also in the process of searching for a new state superintendent.

"This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together around that kind of grand bargain and it could be truly transformative," King said.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, gives his remarks during a panel discussion on Wednesday.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, was a panelist at the event and heard King's remark about the possibility of an educational grand bargain for Michigan.

Vitti said any grand bargain should include a fair and consistent accountability system and more equitable funding that uses a weighted student formula, which provides extra funding above a base level.

"I agree it needs to happen," Vitti said. "The timing could be ideal considering we now have a Democratic governor who has signaled she is focused or will be focused on education. I believe we have new leadership in the Republican circle to possibly create bridges with Democrats, to create new policy statewide. I'm optimistic."

The conference comes at a time when Michigan's K-12 education performance has been sliding.

According to The Education Trust-Midwest, fewer than 20 percent of black third-grade students in Michigan and about 30 percent of Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds are reading and writing at grade level, compared to more than half of their white peers.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said any grand bargain for Michigan must include large investments in early education through third grade, more resources for high-poverty schools and more support for teachers and their practice.

"What happens in the classroom between students and teachers is really important," Arellano said.

Arellano said during the conference that leading education states such as Massachusetts and Tennessee give her hope for Michigan's future.

"They show us the way," Arellano said. "They show us that it's possible to change things, even in five to 10 years, even in states that don't have significant dollars in education."

Other panelists at the event included Melody Arabo, an outreach specialist at and the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year;  David E. Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer at DTE Energy Co. and co-founder of Autism Alliance of Michigan; and Kristin Totten, an education attorney for the ACLU of Michigan.

Arabo, who has a special need child at home, said lawmakers need to be a part of the conversation to find equity in education.

"I would like to see lawmakers connected directly with educators. I would like to see educators on the governor's committees," Arabo said. "I think it's a pivotal time because we have new leadership. ... We have interest, we have desire and need and now people in place to get us there."

King, who is president and CEO of the Education Trust, told the crowd of nearly 200 people that to change the mindset of people in American about education, they have to understand something.

"We have to see the fate of our own child as bound up with the fate of other people's children," King said. "We have to know that how your kid is going to do is going to depend on the kid in the highest need neighborhood in Detroit, the kid in the most challenged rural district in Michigan, the kid who lives on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, the kid growing up near the border in El Paso.

"I often say to folks 'You are not going to be able to build walls high enough to separate the fate of your child from the fate of other people's children.'"