Sam Fogel: What the Chicago teachers strike can teach Michigan

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 1:57pm

At the time of publication, the teachers of Chicago Public Schools have decided to strike and walk out indefinitely until their demands regarding problems like funding and pay have been met. Other demands from the strikers include smaller class sizes, more paid time to prepare lessons and hiring more supplementary staff, like nurses and counselors. This isn’t the first time the Chicago Teachers Union has organized a strike. The same thing happened back in 2012, with similar claims of paltry pay and understaffing of schools. But the woes of the CTU are awfully familiar. Many urban school districts around the country are reportedly understaffed and underfunded, including many here in Michigan. The same issues that plague Chicago’s schools affects us here in Michigan. In many communities around the state, educators and parents bring up the same concerns.

According to some reports, six in 10 schools started the school year understaffed in 2019. This usually leads to a reliance on long-term substitute teachers, who to qualify in Michigan only need 90 college credits. With dwindling pay and fading benefits, qualified teachers are growing ever harder to come by. In Michigan, teacher salaries have gone down by over 11 percent since 2000. It’s much harder to convince people to come into education if they know the salaries are declining. There’s also the issue with student-faculty ratios, which can greatly impact the quality of education students receive. In fact, a smaller student-faculty ratio is a great indicator of future academic achievement. To continue to pay teachers poorly is to deprive children of the education they deserve.

The awful truth of the matter is that many of the schools most affected by underfunding and understaffing are the districts that need the most support. Sixty teachers left Flint Community Schools in 2019 alone. In Detroit, only 15,000 of the city’s 85,000 students attended schools that made the mark for the state’s criteria of “performance.” Those statistics are frankly appalling and pathetic. 

Michigan has some unique problems concerning school funding. According to a study at Michigan State University, Michigan ranks “dead last” in funding growth, with the amount adjusted for inflation only being 85 percent of what it was in 1995. Predictably, Michigan’s schools have only ranked lower and lower on rankings for indicators of progress like standardized tests over time. Recently, however, the state budget might be increased on a per-student basis by $240 dollars, at least for charter school students. But overall, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget is a mixed bag and might be insufficient to close the achievement gap.

It’s not up for debate that Michigan’s schools are inadequate in serving our children, but the way to solve the problem is often contested. Many cite charter schools as the answer, with claims that school choice is an effective way to address failing public schools, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. As of 2016, 70 percent of the time charter schools were in the lower-half of state school rankings. Charter school closures are also common, with Michigan’s rate being 31 percent between 2000 and 2016. 87 percent of the students affected by said statistic were African Americans. Charter schools aren’t solving the inequality and troubles in Michigan schools and may be more trouble than they’re worth.

Solving these problems is going to take a lot of thought, and unfortunately, it’s something that’s also going to take a substantial amount of time. But one thing’s for sure: Our schools need more money. Salaries and conditions for teachers need to be better, considering the atrocious student-to-teacher ratio and retention rate. School spending in poorer school districts is directly correlated with rising test scores over time, and it’s undeniable that many districts are underfunded. In Michigan’s pursuit of evening out the gap between wealthier districts and poorer districts, it must recognize that money must be spent. Unfortunately, this means increasing expenditures, but there are ways of raising the funds. Though education is an expensive endeavor, it makes all the difference in maintaining a prosperous society.

Sam Fogel can be reached at samfogel@umich.edu.