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Dept. of Education finds 54 school districts with at least one low-achieving school

Joshua Hoehne

Fifty-four school districts in Michigan have at least one under-achieving school.

That’s part of the latest update from the state detailing which schools have been designated for additional support through partnership agreements.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said he sees the numbers as a chance for improvement rather than cause for concern.

“It really does provide an opportunity to think very, very deeply, with the state, with the intermediate school district, with your regional education service agency, your RESA, an opportunity to think deeply about how you are going to do better coming out of the pandemic,” Rice said Wednesday.

The data comes from federally required assessment scores and forms the basis of the state's School Index Systemfor evaluating performance. The assessment scores are usually taken every three years, but the most recent batch was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, so the 2021-22 school year marks the first time since the pandemic that the state has published its index.

There are three levels for state partnerships under the current accountability system.

Schools that fall within the lowest-performing 5%, or have a 4-year duration rate of 67% or lower, are enrolled in a program called Comprehensive Support and Improvement. During the 2016-17 school year, 162 schools were identified for the program. This school year, that number rose to 255.

Other state programs that identify and offer support to low-performing schools will be also be working with an increased number of schools. Schools that qualify for Additional Targeted Support rose from 60 in the 2017-18 school year to 68 this time around, and the number of schools that qualify for Targeted Support and Development went up from 63 to 138 in the same time period.

Rice said partnerships born out of the state's involvement can include goal setting, training, and collaboration with community stakeholders to make sure students are getting the help they need.

“A partnership district moment helps bring together those partners, helps those partners really define need and then responsibilities—roles and responsibilities coming out of that definition of need. Who’s going to be responsible for what? How are we going to drive higher student achievement?” Rice said.

Several of the schools identified for support in past years ended up closing, according to department records.

Rice said there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from that. He pointed to the more than 800 school districts and charter school programs serving students in the state, suggesting the state could stand to consolidate.

“We probably have too many, so that some closed I don’t think is a bad thing. It probably makes for more efficient delivery of education for our children,” Rice said. “That said, I think it also shows that there were schools that didn’t serve our young people over a period of years.”

Rice and other education advocates are using the numbers to push for providing schools with more resources and funding, saying the data reflects years of underinvestment.

Peter Spadafore is the executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity. He said there’s little school districts can do to respond to problems without adequate funding to pay for teachers, staff, and other support.

“If you look at where a lot of the lowest numbers are, you’re seeing a lot of trends. And that can be addressed through investing in equity-based funding, which we’ve seen last year. We saw huge investments in special education, and at-risk, and English-language learners. We need to continue that trend for the next ten years or so to really get to where we need to be,” he said.

Others, however, are looking at the report as evidence parents need more options for their education.

The Great Lakes Education Project has supported a plan to create “student opportunity accounts.” Those would be accounts funded by tax incentive-driven donations that qualifying Michigan parents could put toward a variety of education-related uses. That includes private-school tuition.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer vetoed bills that would have brought that to fruition, criticizing it as a scheme to put public dollars toward private schools.

A ballot initiative from the group Let MI Kids Learn submitted petition signatures in August in hopes of getting the same plan passed through the legislature without the governor’s approval. To date, the Michigan Bureau of Elections hasn’t evaluated those signatures.

“Michigan’s public school bureaucracy has failed our kids,” Great Lakes Education Project Executive Director Beth DeShone said in a press release. “Parents spoke loud and clear in August when they submitted hundreds of thousands of petition signatures to approve opportunity scholarships to help their children.”

Rice said he believes private and parochial schools and home schools have their place within the education system. But he said he doesn’t believe the public should be responsible for funding them.

“Public dollars are for public schools. And I think when you spread dollars too thinly, I think it doesn’t ultimately serve children in the long run,” Rice said.

He called the large amounts of money appropriated for education in the Fiscal Year 2022 and 2023 budgets “generational.” With regard to the number of schools needing support, he said the winding down of the COVID-19 pandemic should lead to better results in schools.

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