Michigan lagged nationally in education before the pandemic hit. So what can be done now?

By: - June 25, 2021 5:46 am

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Even before the pandemic brought a tsunami of challenges to Michigan classrooms, the state’s schools — especially those in high-poverty districts — were struggling under the weight of years of inequitable public school funding, barriers to accessing early learning and unaffordable childcare.

That’s according to findings in a new report released this week from the Lansing-based Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP).

These issues have paved the way for Michigan to be ranked 41st in the nation for education in the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “2021 Kids Count Data Book,” a sweeping look at the challenges facing youth and families across the United States that was issued Monday.

Kelsey Perdue

While Michigan improved in its ranking for overall child well-being in the Annie E. Casey report, rising from 32nd place to 28th in the country, its lowest ranking in the report was the same as last year — 41st for education. The state also came in at 22nd place for overall health and 24th for economic well-being. The foundation primarily used data from 2019, which does not take into account the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Education is where Michigan ranks the worst; other folks are doing a lot better than us,”  Kelsey Perdue, MLPP Kids Count project director, said of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s findings.

The foundation’s publication, as well as the MLPP’s corresponding “2021 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book,” paint a dismal picture of education in the state, including a little more than half of 3- and 4-year-olds not accessing early learning, 68% of fourth-grade students not being proficient in reading in 2019, and 69% of eighth-grade students not being proficient in math in 2019.

These statistics are, according to the MLPP, in large part rooted in the state’s school funding system that favors wealthier and often whiter districts. If state legislators don’t address barriers to equitable education for all students, including adopting a weighted school funding formula that takes into account community needs, Michigan’s academic landscape is poised to further deteriorate, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, the MLPP said.

“Are we making sure all our schools have the resources they need to create an optimal learning environment? The answer to that is no,” Perdue said. “Our schools are not adequately funded. And they’re not equitably funded at all.”


In other words: Students and teachers in Michigan’s most impoverished school districts — where the majority of students are almost always children of color due to structural racism — have been getting short-changed for years. 

Michigan is one of 16 states in the country that provides less funding to its highest-poverty districts than its lowest-poverty districts, leading to further marginalization of students of color and lower-income pupils, the MLPP report noted. And teachers in the highest-poverty districts are paid, on average, $10,000 less than educators in the lowest-poverty districts, according to the MLPP.

To rectify this, the MLPP said the state should adopt a weighted school funding formula that would provide additional financial support for schools working with students with disabilities and language barriers, as well as individuals impacted by poverty. 

Stacey Murphy, a single parent who lives with her middle-school-aged son in Grand Rapids, said she is a strong advocate of more equitably funding schools. Had schools received more equitable funding, the situation Murphy currently faces could have been drastically different, she explained.

“My son started virtual school [during the pandemic] and couldn’t handle it at all, and it seemed like the local public school district had no idea how to help him,” Murphy said. “Over the school year, he got worse and worse, and he completely withdrew within himself. I put him into partial hospitalization from depression. He went into school as an advanced student and then completely failed seventh grade.”


Now, her son does not want to return to the school he had been attending for mental health reasons. Murphy wanted him to attend a public school close to home, but the two in her neighborhood have extremely low rates of proficiency and high rates of suspensions and violence. 

“Because of that, I’m probably going to put him in a charter school for next year and then move to another district for high school,” Murphy said, adding that she wants to support public schools but, with her son in a fragile place emotionally, feels as though she cannot due to the challenges in the schools — something that could have been different, she said, had the district been able to access sufficient funding.

“Weighted school funding based on student needs and that’s a lot more tailored to the community makes more sense,” Murphy said.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been pushing for a weighted school funding formula that provides additional dollars for high-poverty schools and schools working with children with special needs. In her proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget, the governor called for $14.2 million to be used towards a weighted school funding formula.

While Michigan has steadily increased per-pupil funding over the past decade, those increases have not kept up with the rate of inflation — which the MLPP said has resulted in that per-pupil funding actually falling by 9% between 2008 and 2019. Around that same time, from 2010 to 2019, Michigan shifted a total of $4.5 billion intended for K-12 public schools to universities and community colleges to help balance the state budget.

Former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm used money from the School Aid Fund, which is meant to provide dollars for K-12 education, as what was meant to be a one-time loan for colleges amid the 2009 economic recession. However, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, who succeeded Granholm, and the GOP-led state Legislature continued to shift School Aid Fund money to community colleges in part to offset state tax cuts for businesses, according to the MLPP.

That, Perdue said, needs to change if lawmakers want to see the educational system improve, and the MLPP is calling on legislators to solely use School Aid Fund money for K-12 schools.


Whitmer has backed increasing per-pupil allocations in her proposed budget for next year, recommending an additional $203 million be used on per-pupil spending. As part of that increase, the governor said districts that currently have the lowest state funding would receive more.

To further address the state’s educational challenges, the MLPP said there needs to be expanded access to affordable childcare — something which Perdue explained would better prepare students for kindergarten and would raise overall math and reading proficiency rates.

“Quality early learning experiences are really important, and a lot of times that comes through childcare,” Perdue said. “But childcare is unaffordable for a lot of families in Michigan and a lot of times isn’t accessible.”

The average annual cost for one infant in a childcare center in Michigan is 19% of a median family’s income and 54% of a minimum wage worker’s income, according to the MLPP. Right now, those making up to 150% of the federal poverty rate — $39,750 for a family of four — are eligible to receive subsidies to help with the cost of childcare. However, that number is too low, the MLPP said, and families making more than that still cannot afford childcare. That threshold should be raised to 250% of the federal poverty level — about $64,000, the MLPP said. Too, the organization said, the state should increase funding to providers who accept clients accessing subsidies. 

“Providers who accept subsidies get reimbursed from the state, but that reimbursement rate doesn’t provide the true cost of providing care,” Perdue said. “That deincentivizes providers from accepting those subsidies.”

Quisha Brown with her family, Nathan, Omar, Mayah, and Brandon.

Prior to the pandemic, Quisha Brown, who lives with her three children and husband in Farmington, worked to spread the word about childcare subsidies in her role as the former director of programs and planning for the Detroit Parent Network. Brown ended up having to leave her full-time position there in order to care for her children during the pandemic. Like the MLPP, she noted that the income threshold to receive childcare subsidies is far too low. 

“People can’t afford childcare even though they made more,” she said. 

“A lot of the moms I used to talk to had issues getting subsidies because they couldn’t, or refused to, give the name of the father,” Brown added. “In some cases, they were afraid to give the name.”

Murphy, the mother from Grand Rapids, also emphasized the importance of increasing access to subsidies, saying it would help parents return to the workforce after leaving it because of the pandemic. Brown noted that it’s not just subsidies that are needed for that to happen and said she hopes workplaces would be encouraged, or required, to provide time for parents to respond to school emergencies.

“There’s sick time and vacation time, but there should be something specific to use for emergencies for your children, especially with the pandemic,” she said. “If I find out somebody in my child’s class has [COVID-19], I’m not going to want to send them to school for a couple days, and then my boss will be looking at me funny.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.