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Michigan leaders urged to shield vulnerable students from education cuts

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Education advocates are calling on state leaders to insulate Michigan's most vulnerable students from the effects of steep budget cuts for which schools across the state are preparing amid the coronavirus crisis.

The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan, education-focused research and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak, argues that spending cuts, as well as state and federal aid to schools, should be targeted in an equitable way so the crisis does not exacerbate already-stark inequities for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners and students in rural communities.

Education Trust-Midwest is calling on Michigan's governor and Legislature to protect the state's most vulnerable students from steep budget cuts amid the coronavirus crisis.

"U.S. public education faces a historic challenge and opportunity to prioritize the needs of Black, brown and low-income students," executive director Amber Arellano said in a statement. "Never before in American history has there been a more important moment for Michigan's governor and legislature to step up and commit to shielding these and other vulnerable students from harmful budget cuts — and to ensure their educational recovery is an utmost public priority in our state this year."

The call to action headlines the Education Trust's annual State of Michigan Education report, titled "A Marshall Plan: Reimagining Michigan Public Education." The report, released Tuesday, provides data on Michigan students' educational outcomes, such as early literacy rates and college readiness. And, given the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, the 2020 edition highlights the potential impacts of education cuts and makes recommendations to state and school leaders on how to help students recover lost learning time.

Facing a collective revenue drop of $2.39 billion estimated in the current and upcoming state school budget, public school districts are anticipating significant budget cuts. Districts expect a cut of about $700 per student in state revenue this school year, which ends June 30, and another $700 cut for 2020-21, The Detroit News previously reported

Amber Arellano

Additionally, K-12 schools may have to spend more than $1 billion on unplanned expenses such as buying personal protective equipment, according to an estimate by the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

The Education Trust's report, based on National Assessment of Education Progress data, finds that, by many measures, Michigan students lag their peers in other states:

  • Michigan is one of 18 states that since 2003 has been declining in early childhood literacy.
  • From 2003-2019, Michigan did not make meaningful improvement for all students in fourth-grade reading.
  • For low-income students, Michigan ranks 32nd for fourth-grade reading and 44th for fourth-grade math.
  • Michigan is in the bottom 10 states nationally for African American students in early literacy and eighth-grade math.
  • In the last 16 years,  Michigan's Latino students improved in early literacy only about one third as much as Latino students nationwide.
  • Michigan ranks among the bottom five states in the U.S. for the funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty districts.

Advocates fear that the disruptions and changes to how students are receiving instruction during the pandemic may exacerbate some of these trends, especially because of the digital divide and other obstacles vulnerable students face.

"There's new research ... finding that rural students, low-income students and kids of color in particular are seeing the largest learning gaps from COVID-19 thus far. For kids of color, they're estimating that it's about a year's worth of (lost) instruction," Arellano told The News. "We're calling on the governor's office and the state legislature to prioritize (future) federal stimulus (dollars) for those schools and communities in particular."

Similar to how Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has enacted education cuts, the Education Trust is calling on the state to develop a formula that would carve out less money from the budget's of higher-poverty districts. 

"One of the things ... in jeopardy is all the work that the state has done around third-grade reading and trying to move that metric," Arellano said. "You'd hate to see all that important work and urgency lost because of COVID-19."

The report's authors frame the issue as a long-term one, noting that schools are likely to experience instructional and budget disruptions for years to come — and emphasizing that the quality of education students receive now will impact their success as adults.

The authors make several recommendations to state and school officials, including:

  • Fair investments targeted to Michigan's vulnerable students: "In the current moment, equitable funding and investments could mean a student having access to a laptop and online learning, a high-quality summer school experience over this summer and next, and a highly-effective educator when in-person learning resumes – or not."
  • Transparency and public reporting on funding decisions and allocations.
  • Extended learning time, including optional summer school sessions and the extension of school days and years when in-class instruction resumes.
  • Making sure that students have access to the technology they need for online learning. The report notes that more than 170,000 Michigan children do not have access to both a device and an internet connection.
  • The continuation of the socio-emotional services many students rely on their schools to provide.
  • Additional support to make sure students who intend to go to college are able to do so.

The governor is expected to release a return-to-school roadmap June 30. State legislators are also working on a school reopening plan that is slated to be released soon.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski