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Opinion | More Education Funding is a Good Start to Boost Michigan’s Economic Competitiveness

Credit: iStock

by Rick Haglund, Michigan Advance
February 27, 2023

Thirty years ago, then-Gov. John Engler used to say that the best-educated state wins.

Michigan has not been winning.

It ranks among the bottom 10 states in high school completion. Nearly half of Michigan’s 2022 high school graduates were not enrolled in college six months after graduating. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores plunged in national testing last year.

Fortunately, experts say Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget actions offer the best hope Michigan has had in decades for addressing a crisis that is putting its economic competitiveness in peril. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to reporters after presenting her budget proposal to the Michigan House and Senate Appropriations Committees on Feb. 8, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

“There’s a lot to celebrate,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, an Ann Arbor-based think tank that advocates for a higher prosperity state. “We’ve been disinvesting in education for decades. This is a big sea change.”

A bipartisan budget agreement adopted in July for the current fiscal year already allocates a record $19.6 billion in the School Aid Fund. Whitmer’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget would bump funding to $20.9 billion.

In addition to increased support for K-12 schools, Whitmer has proposed more spending in a variety of areas experts say is crucial to revamping Michigan’s lagging education system.

Among additional investments are $300 million for tutoring to help students with pandemic-related learning loss, $257.3 million toward the goal of universal preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state and $66.5 million in support for academically at-risk students, English language learners and students in rural school districts.

Another $120 million would be spent on teacher support programs.

“It’s a huge positive in terms of direction,” said Greg Handel, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vice president of education and talent programs.

Universal pre-K is crucial in preparing children for success in the K-12 system, he said. And it would help ease the crisis in affordable day care that is keeping many young parents out of Michigan’s aging labor force.

Spending more money on at-risk students, known as weighted funding, is a smart strategy, said Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

“Some school districts have kids that cost more to educate,” Cowen said. “I think the governor has made a good start here.”

Handel told me he’s particularly encouraged by Whitmer’s proposal to lower the qualifying age for free community college tuition under Michigan Reconnect from 25 to 21. 

The program is aimed at adults who lack an associate degree or credential. Handel said there are 650,000 people in Southeast Michigan who could qualify.

And he described the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship as “a game changer.” High school graduates are eligible for up to $2,750 a year in community college tuition assistance or up to $5,500 a year to attend a four-year public university.

“Michigan goes from being one of the lowest-ranking states in financial aid to easily now a top 10 state,” Handel said.

But he said more awareness of the lucrative scholarship program is needed at a time when the high cost of college education is preventing many from enrolling.

Glazer and others say what’s missing in Whitmer’s education budget plan is systemic education reform.

In its policy prescription for making Michigan a top 10 state for economic growth, Business Leaders for Michigan describes the state’s education system as one that was designed to serve an agrarian economy and later transitioned to “move students from the classroom to the assembly line. It has not kept up with the shifting needs of the 21st century economy.”

What that economy looks like in the years to come is up for debate.

Auto industry leaders say they need more highly skilled technical workers, especially software engineers, as they transition to electric and self-driving vehicles.

In its policy prescription for making Michigan a top 10 state for economic growth, Business Leaders for Michigan describes the state’s education system as one that was designed to serve an agrarian economy and later transitioned to ‘move students from the classroom to the assembly line. It has not kept up with the shifting needs of the 21st century economy.’

But the rapid development of artificial intelligence — you must still be using a manual typewriter if you haven’t heard about ChatGPT — makes it difficult to predict what jobs will be in demand when today’s K-12 students enter the workforce.

It’s STEM-obsessed world, but Glazer recently wrote that Michigan needs an education system in which “all students develop the broad non-content and non-occupation specific skills that will enable them to keep learning and adapting in a world characterized increasingly by constant change.”

Education Trust-Midwest, a policy research group, is promoting a 10-point education overhaul plan that includes accountability and fiscal transparency in spending, and full access to rigorous academic coursework for all students.

Michigan’s declining national test scores “make clear that we can’t wait any longer, and we can’t continue to do the same things we’ve always done,” Education Trust-Midwest Executive Director Amber Arellano said in October.

But education reform must be linked to a bigger state financial commitment to placemaking — developing the kinds of vibrant communities where young people want to live, Glazer said. 

Michigan appears to be losing young college graduates to Colorado, California, Minnesota and other states that feature those kinds of places.

recent study that included researchers from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and the University of Michigan found that Michigan has 13.7% fewer college graduates living here than it produces. Minnesota is home to 7.8% more graduates than it mints.

Whitmer’s education budget moves are a good start in trying to reverse that trend.

“These are generational investments,” Handel said. “They give me hope that I might not have had a few years ago.”

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