Opinion: A vision for equitable education

Jack Elsey

As state leaders converse this week during the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan has an opportunity to take a hard look at two key issues that have been proven roadblocks to improving our education system: funding and accountability. These are fundamental pillars to providing a quality education for all the state’s children, but they are particularly troublesome for our low-income communities.

Decreased funding for education has led the way to a years-long academic decline in our state — putting us in the bottom third nationally compared to other states — but the children who are harmed the most live in communities like Detroit: places with large numbers of low-income families. Today, only one in 10 children in Detroit receive a quality education. One in 10. That is a level of inequity that we would not stand for in any other aspect of our lives, and certainly shouldn’t be acceptable when it comes to Michigan’s children.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, left, visits students at at Bagley Elementary School in Detroit in September.

Every child, no matter the circumstances, when given the right amount of time, attention, care and support, can achieve. If you believe this, then you should also believe that children who may experience more daily challenges to overcome due to poverty deserve the same chance to succeed. Some children’s families can afford extracurricular activities, some cannot.

But who wouldn’t agree that every child deserves a chance to join a basketball team, or the chess club, or enter a robotics competition if he or she desires? Of course, this is to say nothing about the fact that every child deserves a school building that protects them from the rain or the cold, and an excellent teacher for every grade and subject. But all these basic expectations — the things that many of us took for granted as part of our childhood — require funding that schools across our state do not currently receive. We can and must do better.

The Detroit Children’s Fund supports the recent calls from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti for an equity-based school funding formula and increased facility funding, respectively. Each includes additional funding for students with more significant needs. Equitable funding will help every student start each year on a level playing field.

Creating educational equity starts with providing access to a quality education for every child. Neighborhood after neighborhood in cities like Detroit and Flint have schools that are in dire need of support — places where children enter schools without the resources, well-trained leadership or enough great teachers to unleash their innate potential.

But taxpayer dollars need to be spent responsibly, requiring us to know whether communities’ demands for quality schools are being met. Our state’s school accountability system has faced national scrutiny,  partly because we currently have three of them (yes, three!), yet not one of which clearly communicates to parents whether their child’s school is preparing them for success.

That needs to change. We need a school accountability system that is responsive to local expectations for quality, one that is built with, by and for schools, parents and community members. Around the country, the best school grading systems celebrate schools that change their practice and demonstrate that they are consistently improving, year after year.

The Community Education Commission of Detroit has built such a system. Leveraging school leaders, community leaders and parents, it has painstaking built a school rating system that both sets high expectations for our schools and recognizes that transforming our system won’t happen overnight. Our colleagues in Lansing may want to take a serious look at this model for the future.

At the Detroit Children’s Fund, we’re doing our part. We provide additional funding for schools and recruit nationally renowned partners to train and support teachers and principals in schools across our city, both DPSCD and non-profit charter. We were early supporters of Detroit’s Community Education Commission because we believe that community-driven decisions are always better. And we’re unapologetically vocal about what children need: better schools so they can lead the lives they choose.

Every child wants and deserves the same opportunities. It’s our duty as policymakers and business and civic leaders to give that to them. We look forward to hearing the state’s vision at the conference and how they plan to lead the way for every child to receive a quality education.

Jack Elsey is executive director of the Detroit Children's Fund.