From the Daily: Education reform is necessary

Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 5:12pm

At the end of February, the state of Michigan published the findings of the 21st Century Education Commission report. The commission consisted of many education experts, largely appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R), with the goal of outlining recommendations for improving Michigan’s education system. This report found that, while implementing some changes will be more difficult than implementing others, change is necessary. Currently, Michigan public school students are egregiously underperforming: Michigan ranks 41st in the nation in fourth-grade reading performance and eigth-grade math performance is also declining. The report emphasizes increased funding for public education and other related programs as well as universal access to preschool and community college. It also calls for a transition from a voter-elected to a government-appointed Michigan State Board of Education. Therefore, while the commission’s report certainly has its flaws, the Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board believes it is the responsibility of the state to take these findings and institute changes in Michigan’s public school system.

As stated in the commission’s report, it is vital that Michigan works to financially invest more in schools for any tangible change in the state’s education system to occur. Since 2000, the United States has increased spending by $1,400 per student, while Michigan has decreased spending on students by $663 each. This figure has been on the rise since Snyder’s initial education cuts in 2011, but still falls short of pre-recession levels of education spending. It is extremely important that the state invests in education for the well-being of students. Various studies have shown that quality education is crucial for the success of children over the course of their entire lives, and that families who cannot afford to send their children to private schools should have equal access to comparable education in public schools.

The commission suggests allocating between $110 million and $900 million annually to provide additional resources to disadvantaged students, up to $75 million annually for teacher preparation and professional development programs and $70 million toward putting human services in schools that largely serve students of low socioeconomic status. However, the report doesn’t detail exactly how these funds should be put to use, and an “indeterminate” amount of funds is allocated toward many of the initiatives the commission suggests. The lack of clarity poses the danger of investing money thoughlessly. Further research must be done to ensure appropriate funding is allocated to education reform measures suggested in the report.

Making preschool and community colleges free for residents of Michigan is also an important step to help give all children and young adults access to education, regardless of their socioeconomic status. While not easy tasks, these are critical steps to help mitigate the gap in educational attainment between students of low and high socioeconomic status. Preschool, according to the commission, has been shown to improve school readiness. Eliminating costs for enrolling children in the education system early would benefit every child who would otherwise be unable to attend preschool, and create a better foundation for a child’s learning abilities. Preschool not only fosters social and emotional development, but also language and cognitive skills, which would in turn promote a successful education career.

Furthermore, free community college would increase the number of college graduates in the state and significantly decrease the gap between low- and middle-income students’ enrollment. Even though this plan is not concrete policy yet, free post-secondary education can benefit many people and the state should seek to make this plan a reality in the near future. Free schools, especially community colleges, are something that politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have fought for, belieivng equal access to equitable education is a right that everyone should have. During his time in office, former President Barack Obama created a board that was working to make two-year community colleges free and included people such as former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer (R) and Jill Biden. Some states, like Oregon, have programs in place to offer free community college tuition to certain students. States such as California, Wisconsin and Illinois have introduced similar programs. Additionally, an increasing number of community colleges are taking it upon themselves to offer free tuition to in-state students.

The commission also endorses establishing merit-based scholarships for Michigan residents to attend public, in-state universities. While these goals are sensible, they are not flawless. First, scholarships based on “merit” can create an unequal playing field depending on the metrics used to define it. For example, standardized testing scores as a marker of merit is more dependent on one’s ability to afford test-prep courses and tutoring than on sheer effort and intelligence. The commission report suggests using GPA as the main scholastic marker of achievement and requiring students to fill out the FAFSA to become eligible for this award, which would help favor high-performing students who demonstrate financial need. The commission’s report is positive in its insistence that post-secondary education is an absolute necessity, and should thus be a priority and responsibility of the state.

Nevertheless, there are some concerning portions of the commission’s report. One example is the commission’s suggestion to replace the elections for State Board of Education and give the state governor the power to appoint the board. The commission report argues a governor-appointed board would allow the state to implement education reform policies more efficiently, since the governor would be in charge of the state and the Board of Education. This is concerning as Snyder has not managed to appoint officials who successfully managed other crises in the state, such as the failing of Detroit’s public schools and the Flint water crisis. Detroit public schools are still not performing up to par, and Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Additionally, we are concerned that governor-appointed officials lack accountability toward residents of Michigan.

Given the dismal state of many of Detroit’s public schools and the continual repercussions of the Flint water crisis, this commission, though imperfect, is an important step in the right direction. Of course, there must be more than simply first steps, and these changes will not happen overnight. But this recommendations will help guide the state of Michigan’s education system in a more positive direction. If Michigan is to prepare children for the “careers, lives, and futures to which they aspire,” as this report indicates, we must take the findings of the commission seriously and work to shape a better path forward.