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Yes Detroit schools are bad, but even Michigan's best schools are no longer that great

May 23, 2016

The governor and the legislature are currently fighting over how to rescue the Detroit public schools from financial collapse. There’s a general recognition that this has to be done, if only because the consequences of not doing so would cost the state even more.

The state constitution requires Michigan to provide an education for all children.

Detroit’s schools are half a billion dollars in debt and on the brink of not being able to pay their staff. The house and the senate are far apart on money, but the real issue dividing them is whether to put any restraint on the spread of charter schools.

The governor wants to establish a Detroit Education Commission that would have a say in where any proposed new public school, conventional or charter, could locate, in order to prevent the sort of destructive competition that has left some areas dreadfully underserved.

The state house, however, wants no restraints over the charters of any kind, and the Speaker has indicated that’s more important to him than saving Detroit’s schools.

But beyond Detroit is an even more significant story that Michigan Radio reported last week, but too many news outlets basically ignored. The Education Trust-Midwest, a non-partisan research organization, released a report showing that Michigan schools were among the academically weakest in the nation, and getting worse.

If you think this is only a minority-based problem, think again. In fact, in terms of fourth-grade reading, affluent Michigan fourth-graders are already 50th. This will have devastating consequences for our economic future, in a world where virtually all new good-paying jobs require education beyond high school.

This may have come as a surprise to some lawmakers, but was anything but news to one mother I know. Rebecca Kavanagh is a Michigan native in her 40s with two kids in a fairly affluent Detroit suburban public high school. She and her husband moved back from San Diego in the year 2000 to raise their children in what was then regarded as a model school district.

“We moved here for the schools – and now I am holding my breath hoping my kids get into college,” she said. Her daughter, the oldest, has a 3.9 GPA, but Kavanagh said “she’s not seeing the same high scores on her ACT and SATs – and yes, I do blame the schools for not preparing her.” While the teachers focus on “teaching to the test,” her parents, both graduates of Michigan State, worry their kids aren’t being taught what they need for college readiness.

“I know it didn’t used to be like this,” Rebecca said. “My mom was a teacher. I believed in Michigan’s education system. And I’m not sure it can ever recover, honestly.”

The Education Trust report indicated recovery may be possible, but not through any quick fix. “We won’t succeed with the one-off investments that Michigan has long tried,” the report concludes. “It’s going to take a series of interconnected changes in policy and practice, fueled by strategic investments over multiple years.”

That would mean no more robbing the schools to give businesses a quick, politically popular tax cut. It would mean a policy of putting our children and our future first, which is what responsible government should do.

I’m not sure that any issue could be more important.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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.