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Public education in Michigan is in a free-fall

Sep 9, 2017

Don’t let the opening days of another school year, or another Michigan win at the Big House, fool you: public education in this state is in steep decline.

Out of the 50 states, Michigan ranks 37th in eighth-grade math and 41st in fourth-grade reading, says the nonpartisan Public Sector Consultants. Strip out the state’s lowest-income students, and fourth-grade reading slips to 48th.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

That should make a lot of parents and teachers shudder.

Performance for white, Latino, and African-American students has declined since 2013, according to the Education Trust-Midwest, another group that tracks education outcomes. Michigan’s higher-income students have slipped to 41st nationally from 34th in 2003.

And that exposes a Big Lie: all that ails education around here doesn’t just reside in Detroit and poor urban cores.

In the past 10 years, state spending on postsecondary education has declined 14 percent — that’s even as tuition at Michigan colleges and universities has continued to increase.

The bottom line? Michigan’s educational attainment metrics stink, and they’re getting worse. They deteriorated under a Democratic governor, and they deteriorated under her Republican successor. They worsened when Dems controlled the state House, and worsened again when Republicans did.

If the past is prologue, only two things will rouse the political and educational establishment here to action: the kind of financial collapse that forced two Detroit automakers and its city into bankruptcy. Or a wholesale exodus from the public schools.

Don’t think that can exact pressure for change? Ask Detroit Public Schools, where funding plummeted when families fled the city schools for other options.

It shouldn’t have to come to this in a state that is home to arguably the top public university in the United States. In a state that witnessed firsthand the price of ignoring competition and performance, of disregarding the human cost of inaction. But it has.

“Today, Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and falling behind,” says Education Trust-Midwest. “White, black, brown, higher-income, lower-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.”

Michigan kids are not keeping up. And that’s a statewide embarrassment.

How can the place that presumes to be the high-tech auto capital of the 21st century, that has designs to reshape its economy with knowledge workers, that boasts so much technical talent, make that case — with a straight face — when it refuses to educate its kids?

It can’t.

And it’s past time that parents and business leaders, teachers unions and politicians, Republicans and Democrats, all stop prosecuting their petty ideological agendas and rally around a simple proposition: They are failing kids. And that means Michigan risks getting dumber and poorer.

Nearly 93 percent of Michigan children born in the 1940s earned more than their parents. By the 1980s, that number shrank to 46 percent. The unemployment rate for state residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 2.7 percent. For those without a high school diploma, it’s 14 percent.

College may not be for everyone, but education is.

Today’s leaders do tomorrow’s kids no favors by beggaring education spending or weakening curriculum standards. And ignoring evidence of underachievement is just plain cowardice.

It has to stop.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with the Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.