Opinion: If Michigan wants to be a top education state, it must address funding

Amber Arellano

In recent years a broad consensus has emerged across Michigan leaders, demanding that the state's middling public education system be focused on the goal of becoming a top 10-performing education state. 

As a leader in the campaign to reach this goal for all groups of students, our organization has advocated for state leaders to improve key research-based levers to lift Michigan’s public education system and its student outcomes, from investing more to support educators to improving evidence-based strategies to dramatically boost third-grading reading levels. 

Increases in education spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, Arellano writes.

Never before, though, has our organization focused so deeply on school funding, for good reason: Money alone is insufficient for educational transformation. Yet money matters, especially for vulnerable students. Increases in education spending have been shown to improve educational attainment, lead to higher wages and reduce poverty in adulthood, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. 

This month that changed with the kick off the Education Trust-Midwest’s new Fair Funding campaign and report, Michigan’s School Funding: Crisis and Opportunity. More than a year in the making in partnership with national organizations, the report highlights key principles for transforming the state's system of funding schools into one that puts the needs of the student first. 

After looking at both research and the examples of leading education states, the report first suggests providing adequate and stable funding for every student. In addition, the report outlines what resources are needed to support Michigan’s vulnerable students, including additional dollars to support students from low-income families; students learning English at school; students with disabilities; and students living in isolated rural districts. 

The report also identifies a set of principles focused on ensuring that every dollar spent on public education is spent in the most effective way possible. This begins with accountability for spending.

When state lawmakers designate a dollar to benefit a low-income student, there should be no doubt that the funds reach the school and classroom where that child attends school. And when schools are funded to meet the needs of their students, they should be accountable for planning and spending in a way that is based on best practices to meet the needs of each student.

Amber Arellano

Massachusetts is a great example of the importance of both greater accountability and much more investment in equitable school funding in order to dramatically raise student learning. Over the last two decades, Massachusetts has led the U.S. for educational performance in large part because of its commitment to accountability and high performance standards for all of its schools. 

Now its leaders have set an ambitious but realistic goal of becoming a top educational performer in the world — not just for their rich children but for all of their students. To do just that, last year Massachusetts leaders committed in law to provide up to 100% more dollars for low-income students than non-low-income students over the next seven years — taking a bold step toward what national research suggests is needed to close gaps in opportunity and achievement for all students.

Improving Michigan public education will not be easy. Yet, as leading states demonstrate, it is possible with strong leadership and commitment to not only best practices but also greater investment that helps ensure all children and communities have access to strong public schools. 

Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research, policy and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak that focuses on equity and excellence in Michigan public education.