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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

MI Needs a New Education Funding Model

November 10, 2017

DETROIT – Mayor Mike Duggan, as expected, breezed to a re-election landslide this week over State Senator Coleman Young II, who had little support and less funding.  Detroiters, the vast majority of whom are black, rejected blatantly racist appeals to “take back the motherland” by Young late in the campaign, a term-limited legislator who changed his name after paternity tests showed he was the out-of-wedlock son of Detroit’s first black mayor.

The result was not a surprise; Detroit’s energetic, 59-year-old can-do mayor had stunned the political world four years earlier by winning a majority in the primary on a write-in vote, with some scrawling “Duggan the white guy,” on their ballots.

But what isn’t clear is if Mike Duggan can keep Detroit’s comeback momentum going.  And the biggest hurdle of all may not be crime or the lack of jobs, though those are factors.

It is the schools.

The good news is that almost nobody four years ago would have dreamed the city would have made as much progress as it has.  Every avenue in Detroit finally has working streetlights for the first time in decades.  Police, fire and ambulance response times have been drastically shortened; a record number of derelict buildings were torn down and the city has a small budget surplus.  But there are still tremendous problems with the public schools, despite a bailout by the Michigan legislature that enabled them to shed most of their debt.

Detroit’s mayor doesn’t run the schools, but last year he asked the lawmakers to create a Detroit Education Commission that would determine where any new public schools could open.  He and others were concerned about charter schools, some operated by for-profit companies, cannibalizing more desirable areas and weakening the public schools.

Duggan and Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed the Detroit schools needed $715 million to have a reasonable chance at succeeding in the next few years.  But GOP lawmakers refused to do that, which left the mayor fearing this would doom what is now known as the Detroit Public Schools Community District.  That’s because the vast majority of school funding in Michigan comes via a per-pupil “foundation grant,” currently $7,552 per student.  If students leave the public schools for charter schools, the public schools lose their money.

And leave they have been – something that has been beyond devastating to the Detroit public schools.  Fifteen years ago, DPS had 156,000 students on “count day.”  This year the number was 48,511 – and even that was up slightly from last year, and up from projections.  But the decline has been devastating.  Last winter, the mayor visited Detroit schools that were freezing, with inadequate plumbing and supplies and dead rodents on the floors.

Charter schools also get the foundation grant, but they are far less regulated than the public schools, and sometimes have shut down abruptly in midyear.  Perhaps as a result of chaos and limited resources, test scores for students in Detroit schools are the worst of any large city in the nation.  Last year, only six percent of Detroit Public School Community District elementary school students were proficient in math; only 12 percent in reading.  High school scores were only slightly better.

That may be more of an obstacle to Detroit’s comeback than crime. What this means in practical terms is that there’s no way most middle-class parents with children will move into Detroit. 

As long as that’s true, Detroit’s revival will be limited to young hip urban professionals and retirees; “the newly wed and almost dead,” as Kurt Metzger, the city’s best-known demographer puts it.  Metzger is now the mayor of tiny Pleasant Ridge, an older residential community two miles from Detroit’s border.  He believes Detroit’s population decline may have actually stopped, but agrees that unless and until people can have confidence enough to put their children in public schools, the city’s future is bound to be severely limited.

But what few realize is that schools are also deteriorating statewide, something that may also severely impact Michigan’s ability to compete for economic opportunities.  Fewer than half of all Michigan third graders are reading as well as they should be.  The actual figure is 44.1 percent – down from 50 percent two years ago, according to the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as M-STEP.  Math and science scores did show some slight improvement, something State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston called “exciting news.” 

But overall math proficiency was barely 33.5 percent in eighth grade, which makes Mr. Whiston’s vow to make Michigan a “top 10 education state” within a decade seem hollow.  On top of that, Michigan now has an actual teacher shortage; the number of new teachers certified in the state has dropped from 9,664 in 2004 to 3,696 last year.  Teachers and their allies blame this on a years-long campaign by Republicans to weaken teacher pay benefits, and the amount the state spends on education.

“If legislators want to know why there is a looming teacher shortage, they need look no further than their own actions,” said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.  Not surprisingly, Republicans disagree.  But what does seem beyond doubt is that the funding model for public education in Michigan no longer works.  And until Michigan schools can again produce graduates who can compete in the modern economy, the state’s chances of regaining its former prosperity are likely to be slim—and none.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

November 9, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Nov 10, 2017 at 10:51 am

    “…For the city is a jungle when the law is out of sight, and death lurks…” -Phil Ochs 1964 +-. Jack knows. Reiteratively that’s why I left the Motor City in 1970 babe in arms – the school system and the streets leading to it. It’s one thing to be an adult there – in select venues – quite another to foist that upon the very young, no way, Jose, can you see by the dawn’s murky light even with new streetlights, cops, ER and firefighters. Education Yes, resoundingly so, safe and affordable all the way through college is the syllogistic resolve. Obviously the black folks know that “the white guy” can giterdun but money is needed to first fix the properties, procure materials, personnel, infrastructure maintenance. Detroit is unique in comparison to all other major US cities in that really, “You Can’t Go Home Again”. Not yet anyway.

  • 2 Charlene // Nov 10, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I’m not at all surprised at the shortage of teachers. I have never figured out why Republicans in this State thought turning public school teachers into “the enemy” was an astute move.

  • 3 Barry Stern // Nov 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm

    As I wrote Mayor Duggan 3.5 years ago,
    “The Mayor of Detroit is best positioned to bring about the magnitude of change that is needed. Building on Mayor Bing’s efforts, I see where the Duggan administration has forged alliances among various agencies to focus on job creation and educational quality. Yet the vast majority of public agencies continue to operate the same old discredited models and incentive structures. They remain wedded to instructional strategies that have embarrassingly low learning and placement rates, whether basic academics or alternative education for high school students, developmental education for community college students, adult literacy and training programs for displaced workers. Most programs produce minimal learning because they are insufficiently intensive, integrated or demanding. Moreover, they tend to be irrelevant to participants’ career aspirations and employer expectations.

    Meantime, Detroit has the greatest literacy challenge of any large city in America. Almost half the adult population functionally illiterate. The economy and population cannot grow until that situation is remedied. Unskilled jobs continue to disappear. The City cannot wait for schools to produce enough literate, career-ready graduates. Adults, especially parents, must be equipped with literacy skills while kids are being schooled. Research from all over the world indicates that the best predictor of child literacy is parent literacy, especially the mother.


    Along with more business activity and infrastructure development, the City’s path to job creation and educational improvement requires (1) a major public-private campaign to improve literacy across all age groups and (2) a well-designed pipeline strategy to prepare individuals for high skill, high demand occupations in 4-5 key industries (e.g. manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, construction, energy). These two strategies are outlined below.

    1. Improve literacy
    Efforts to improve literacy and employment readiness would center on the Fast Break employment-training program. Focus:HOPE developed the basic model in the early 1990s. Colin Powell called it one of the best things he had seen, along with Focus:HOPE’s Machinist Training Institute, which the Department of Defense supported for many years. With the help of a 3-year National Science Foundation grant I had the privilege of replicating Focus:Hope’s Fast Track program in Los Angeles after training for six weeks at Focus:HOPE. A few years later Michigan Governor Engler invested $5 million to update and then demonstrate the model over three years in another six sites. Both the Los Angeles and Michigan demonstrations were able to replicate Focus:Hope’s results – 2+ grade-level gains in reading and math in only 2-3 months and 80% placement of graduates in career-entry positions or college. Of those choosing college, only 15% needed remedial training (in contrast, 70% of college entrants in Detroit and Los Angeles must take remedial English or math)…”

    With education continuing to come up short in Detroit, perhaps the “full court press” I recommended years ago to improve literacy among all age groups with more enlightened methods would be worth a try.

  • 4 Chuck Fellows // Nov 11, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Detroit, and other Michigan cities have an opportunity . . .

    The new funding model: Move the budget process into the classroom, budgets to be developed by teachers collaborating, with individual student needs as the base for operational funding development. Aggregate those budgets for a district and Lansing required by law to fund at those levels. Current bureaucracy at state and local levels act as support, not directors of the process.

    Capital funding: equalize school infrastructure funding supporting low property tax communities at the same level as the current hold harmless districts in the state.

    New Learning Model: Starting at the pre school level base curriculum development and pedagogy on individual student needs as defined by teachers in the classroom with the support, not the direction, from existing bureaucracies. (aligned with teacher developed budgets). Require collaboration and cooperation between teachers and academic disciplines and the integration of those disciplines. No more knowledge silos. Recognize what is actually supports learning.

    Social reality is that how we learn is changing and changing fast. Traditional public schools, Pre-K-20, provide educational services for the industrial revolution. This is the 21st century. Learning can be accomplished through many means, virtual schools, home schools, MOOCs, Coursea,,,, Olin College, public Charter Schools, the School in the Cloud, Big Picture Schools . . . .

    The goal is learning, not arguing about the preservation of traditional public school structures or false accountability. The only entity accountable for learning is the child who is born knowing how to learn. We do not allow them to be accountable!

    Eliminate the ranking and rating – shaming of children and teachers. End standardized test scores as the singular criteria, binary perspective of an infinitely variable process (requires understanding variation).

    Our current “system” worked for the rise of the industrial revolution. We are no longer in an industrial revolution. Failure to change our approach to learning is a prescription for the death of this republic.

    It is certain to kill off public schools as the private sector, no longer well served by our current system of education, funds private efforts to prepare employees for real future careers. For example, the Manufacturing Institute in collaboration with trade groups has developed a skills certification program for their member organizations. Nationally Manufacturing Day (first Friday in October each year) is attracting thousands of middle and high school students to their career paths, moving away from the traditional purely academic post secondary degree path. (

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