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Commentary: Education inequities start at the schoolhouse door

By Jametta Lilly, Monique Marks and Alice Thompson

Alice Thompson, from left, is chair of the Education Committee, NAACP-Detroit Branch; Jametta Lilly is CEO, Detroit Parent Network; and Monique Marks is CEO, Franklin-Wright Settlements Inc.

Over the past year, our nation rightfully confronted a moment of racial reckoning amid protests and worldwide calls for justice that followed tragic police violence. At the same time, Americans were challenged to confront our nation's long-standing history of racial injustices.

In towns and cities across the U.S., from classrooms to boardrooms, Americans have engaged in tough conversations about our racial challenges. People from all walks of life were forced to look deep inside themselves to consider how systemic racism has resulted in profound inequities, especially for Black communities. And indeed, many commitments for reform — some incremental and some large — were made by CEOs, legislators and our neighbors to tackle the racial injustices in our workplaces and communities.

Yet, we cannot continue to ignore the place where so many inequities regularly begin — and too often grow — for our youngest Americans: the schoolhouse door.

Our public schools: Engines of inequality

The challenges are significant across our state, causing many parents to worry that Michigan's schools are not doing enough to provide a great education for their children. Indeed, many believe education is not a top priority for our state.

They have good reason to be concerned: Michigan was one of 18 states actually declining since 2003 in early literacy on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest nationally representative student assessment that is known as the "Nation's Report Card."

Consider: Nearly one in every four Michigan high school students are required to take at least one remedial course upon enrolling in one of our two- and four-year college or university programs.

There's little doubt that Michigan is not committing the resources necessary to support its 1.4 million public school students, especially considering Michigan had the lowest education revenue growth of all 50 states between 1995 and 2015.

Yet the problem is far worse for school communities serving higher percentages of Black and low-income students, and that is a critical civil rights issue that we can no longer ignore. Indeed, it is the civil rights issue of our time.

Gaps in opportunity lead to gaps in outcomes.

Tragically, Michigan is in the bottom for the funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty districts, resulting in fewer resources for schools serving students who already have less.

And while Michigan's Black families enroll their children in a diverse range of secular and nonsecular private and public schools across our state from Birmingham to Benton Harbor, about 80 percent of Michigan's Black public school students come from low-income backgrounds.

That means public school funding inequities are worse for many of our Black children.

On top of that, Michigan's Black students have less access to post-secondary options, experienced and effective teachers, rigorous courses and high-quality preschool programs. For instance, less than a third of Black 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality state preschool programs, and Black students are drastically underrepresented in rigorous courses, like AP courses.

The reality is this: Fewer opportunities mean fewer opportunities to excel in school for students who are Black, poor or both.

And that's not just harming our youth — it's harming the prospects for our state to realize full success for our future talent base. Indeed, too often, our public education system serves as an engine of inequality rather than the ladder of opportunity that it should be.

Consider that Michigan ranks in the bottom 10 for Black students in early literacy on the NAEP. Our state also ranks in the bottom 10 for Black students in eighth-grade math.

Black students are also overrepresented in remedial courses, which can mean additional costs for them, more time to complete degrees, and an increased likelihood of dropping out. At the same time, they are vastly under-enrolled in Michigan's public four-year college and universities, especially within Michigan's selective public universities.

When you consider that it simply costs more to educate students from low-income backgrounds, many of whom start school academically behind wealthier peers — and that we've already been short-changing our Black students for far too long — it becomes increasingly apparent what we must do.

Time for change: Engine of opportunity

As Michigan seeks to confront the racial injustices throughout our systems, we have to consider the role the education system has played in worsening inequities. It's time for our state leaders to confront the long-standing economic and racial injustices that are leaving far too many of our students without equal opportunities to succeed.

To do that, we must commit to supporting our students with greater needs with additional funding and resources to achieve. That means following the best practices of leading education states such as Massachusetts, which has committed to investing up to twice as much money for low-income students in its poorest school districts than students with no additional needs.

We should start by transforming our inequitable public school funding system to a fair system of opportunity for all students that supports low-income students with additional funding based on their needs — and ensures Michigan's students of color have equal access to resources and opportunities. We should also better hold our schools accountable for their spending to yield results.

And while money is not the solution for everything, we know that it truly matters, especially for low-income students. For instance, school funding increases have been shown to lead to higher salaries, higher rates of college attainment and lower rates of poverty.

If Michigan is serious about addressing its long-standing economic and racial injustices that leave far too many Black and many other students behind, we must tackle the inequities that start at the schoolhouse door — and make our public education system a true engine of opportunity.


This article was originally published by Crain's Detroit Business, November 4, 2021.

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