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The easy part of education reform

At Michigan Future we spend a lot of time talking about how we can prepare Michigan students – all Michigan students – for the 21st century economy. This is an economy in which the returns to “highly-skilled” workers – who can communicate well, think critically, and have deep content knowledge and technical skills – continue to grow. And we believe it’s therefore the responsibility of our education system to equip all students with these skills, so they can be successful in an ever-changing 21st century economy.

Which is why the state’s recent response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of seven Detroit school-children is so disappointing.

The suit claims the state failed to provide these students with the education needed to achieve basic literacy. The state’s response was to argue that literacy was not a constitutional right, and to call upon a federal district judge to say as much.

This is so disappointing because regardless of the state’s duty under the constitution, state government should surely take on as its responsibility the provision of a school system in which every student can succeed. And right now we’re miles away from that.

In a New York Times op-ed from last month, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone argues that this case should be “open-shut,” in favor of the plaintiffs. Because while the constitution doesn’t specifically mention a right to literacy, Stone writes the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that,

“illiteracy is an enduring disability” that will “handicap” children “each and every day” of their lives and take “an inestimable toll” on their “social, economic, intellectual and psychological well-being” for the rest of their lives.

And anyone paying attention to the state of Detroit schools realizes that many students in the worst Detroit schools are currently being denied an even minimally adequate level of education.

This is, of course, demonstrated through student test scores that show a proficiency rate near zero at some schools. But more importantly, it’s evident in the extreme lack of resources students are provided. As professor Stone writes:

As the plaintiffs demonstrate, many classes lack even minimally usable textbooks; classrooms are overcrowded and have inadequate temperature controls so the students often suffer from extreme heat and cold; classrooms are infested with vermin; the drinking water in some of these schools is often contaminated; the bathrooms are filthy and unkempt; and many of the teachers assigned to these schools are asked to teach subjects for which they lack training or experience.

As I noted in an earlier post, people often make the faulty claim that money doesn’t matter in education, preferring to focus on outputs rather than inputs. But inputs matter. And they matter especially when a certain set of inputs give students not even the slightest shot at success. In an expansive legal ruling from earlier this year, a Connecticut judge cited as the lowest bar of adequacy, classrooms that provide enough light, space, heat, and air to permit children to learn. Based on the accounts of Detroit schools that filled the news last winter, it’s not clear that certain Detroit schools would even meet this incredibly low benchmark.

The high level of disrepair and lack of resources should also not be surprising based on state policy. The already low levels of per-pupil funding that cover schools’ operational expenditures are now down 15% since 2002. And in addition, Michigan is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t help districts pay for capital costs, leaving them to raise money for school buildings locally, all but assuring beautiful facilities in wealthy areas, and decrepit buildings in poor ones.

In 1988, Jonathan Kozol wrote the seminal book Savage Inequalities, documenting first-hand the gulf between the educational have and have-nots. “The urban schools he visited were overcrowded and understaffed, and lacked the basic elements of learning – including books and, all too often, classrooms for students.” It’s sad to say that almost thirty years after Kozol brought to national attention the shocking state of many urban schools, we continue to deal with the same issues.

The current focus on what’s “minimally adequate” is criminal because we have to focus on it at all. Our discussions about school-quality need to be about what curriculum, what pedagogy, and what experiences will give our students a shot at being successful in the 21st century economy. That stuff is the hard part. But providing all Michigan children with adequate facilities, a well-trained teacher, and reasonable class sizes? That’s the easy part. And we must do it.





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Patrick Cooney

Patrick Cooney is Vice President of Michigan Future Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Do private and religious schools have any place in helping to solve this problem? I know some Christian schools have mostly white, middle class students who would already get a good education if they went to a public school. However some others do serve mostly low income minority students in the inner cities. These schools rely on donations from outside the population they serve since few of their students have families that can support such a school. My wife and I contribute to such a school in the inner city of the the town where we live. A very high percentage of the mostly Black, Hispanic and immigrant graduates do go on to college. I realize such private schools can not solve the entire problem, because they rely on private donations which will always be limited. But it does appear they are doing their part to solve part of the problem.

    1. Good question. A lot of states are now using public funding to pay for some portion of private school education. When it comes to low income kids the results are mixed. Lots of folks––including me––have concerns about using public funding for private schooling. But if you get beyond those philosophical issues then the questions becomes––just as it does for charters––how do you restrict the funding only to schools that actually make a difference in life outcomes and how do you help parents and students enroll in the schools that do make a real difference. We haven’t been very good with either in the charter sector. Not sure why we think we would do better with private schools. All that being said I do think its worth considering.

      1. I am not thinking about government financial support for such schools. I assume that would not be legal. I am talking about private donations for religious or private schools that work with low income students in the inner city.

    2. Don, I agree that private/religious schools can be part of the solution, though also agree with Lou that they shouldn’t receive public funding. I do think, however, that there are certainly lessons public schools can learn from exemplary private/religious schools. The Cristo Rey model comes to mind in particular, where at ton of effort is placed on ensuring students have work-experience that helps build ownership in their education.

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