Editorial: Distrust of schools should boost reform

The Detroit News

Public schools in Michigan got very low marks in a recent statewide poll. Residents have good reason to be disappointed with the quality of K-12 schools. The state’s students continue to fall behind compared with their peers nationally, and that spells trouble for these students — and for Michigan’s future economy.

A talented workforce is one of the key factors for businesses choosing to locate in a specific area. Currently, Michigan’s public schools aren’t preparing the next generation for 21st century opportunities.

Parents and residents in Michigan know this, as the poll makes clear. Seventy-six percent believe education is not a top priority in the state. And roughly half of respondents think education has gotten worse in recent years. Only a third feel that high school graduates are well or mostly prepared for college.

Those numbers are alarming. Yet they accurately reflect where Michigan stands. The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress placed the state’s fourth-graders at 41st of the nation’s 50 states. The NAEP is an important benchmark of a child’s education. Scores in other grades and subjects were equally low. Plus, an annual survey by Education Week listed Michigan as the only state to have lowered student proficiency in the past 12 years.

The Michigan poll was sponsored by Your Child, a nonprofit public awareness campaign. This effort is a revival of Your Child’s work in the 2000s, which helped change perceptions of the value of higher education.

Now pollster Ed Sarpolus and State Board of Education member Eileen Weiser, who are behind the latest Your Child initiative, want to harness the frustration and dissatisfaction with public schools and spur legislative reforms that could positively impact education.

Your Child is also making a strong case that simply throwing more money at schools isn’t the answer. The poll indicated most people understand that. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said it takes more than money to improve education. It’s easy to blame low student achievement on lack of funding for public schools. But it’s more complicated than that. Minnesota spends about the same as Michigan on schools but Minnesota’s fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores rank 8 to 19 points higher than Michigan’s. The same is true in Massachusetts, which spends less than Michigan yet boasts the highest student test scores in the country.

That’s going to be an important point to stress as the state awaits the results of an adequacy study to determine how much should be spent on schools. Republicans in the Legislature unwisely made a deal with Democrats to commission the study in December 2014, and then the state chose a firm — at a cost of $400,000 — that consistently determines insufficient funding is the root of education woes.

Expect the same conclusion this time. As lawmakers consider what to do with the pending adequacy report, they must also weigh reforms that have a proven track record in other states like Florida, Massachusetts and Tennessee. As those states demonstrate, funding plays a role but it’s more important that money is spent well and makes it into classrooms.

The Legislature has taken some valuable steps to improve education, such as with teacher tenure reform and expansion of charter schools. But as this poll illustrates, much more work is needed. And parents, business leaders and educators should come together and insist schools are a priority.