Michigan’s children deserve the very best education, but what they have received from state government over the last couple of decades has been disappointing and lackluster. However, the energy seems to be shifting in the right direction.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her State of the State address to re-emphasize her commitment to improving educational opportunities. In discussing her “Lowering MI Costs” proposal, the governor tie-barred an expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds to retirement tax relief and earned income tax credits. She touted the need for universal pre-K programming that would cover approximately 110,000 kids and save families an average of $10,000. Similarly, the governor renewed her 2021 call for “Get MI Kids Back on Track” that includes funding for tutoring and afterschool programs for students and urged immediate action “before spring break.”
Of course, each of these proposals faces an uphill battle in a Legislature where the Dems hold slim majorities in both chambers. The price tags are steep too, with the tutoring/afterschool programming slated to cost around $280 million and universal pre-K also projected to cost in the hundreds of millions range. The state is still sitting on a COVID relief dollars-fed $9 billion surplus, and negotiations between the administration and Legislature on how to best prioritize those funds have already begun. The governor pointed to her first-term record allocation to the K-12 school aid fund, and her ability to work across the aisle to accomplish that should be commended. However, as MSU faculty have pointed out, Michigan is 50th in the country in K-12 investments since 1993, an alarming gap that requires wholesale change in the way we support our schools.
The benefits of early childhood education are clear, and those benefits of universal pre-K extend to the economy because parents are better able to work when childcare access is less of a hurdle because of the crippling cost. Or they could work less and spend more quality time with their children.
Yet, does the full proposal go far enough? Are there incentives for caring and compassionate early childhood educators to provide the type of quality support our children deserve? Many childcare centers already have waiting lists, and an expanded pre-K program would place profound stress on the educator supply that’s already in urgent need of a pipeline boost. And that doesn’t even include the transportation challenges.
Our children deserve more than a warm body in classrooms. In her address, the governor also gave a nod to the new stipends that student-teachers are receiving to address critical shortages in K-12 teacher labor. Far too many classrooms are staffed by non-certified staff or an already over-burdened administrator because the substitute supply is worse than the diminished certified teacher supply. Students are then supervised by adults with little to no classroom training and end up with lower-quality educational experiences. This doesn’t sound like the optimized system for education that the consortium of business and education association leaders known as Launch Michigan were calling for to develop students who are the “critical, versatile, and creative thinkers we need to sustain robust communities, fuel a vigorous economy, and live meaningful and rewarding lives.” This isn’t to say that Michigan’s teachers aren’t doing their best to teach and support our students, because they are. But they deserve better from all of us. And the state’s future depends on getting it right.
To that end, do we think tutoring alone will pull our students out of the ceaseless wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Sure, our youth need more support for their learning, and some could benefit from extra time on reading, writing, mathematics and science. But that time shouldn’t just be more drills on the rudimentary aspects of schooling. Students need opportunities to be creative and grow their passion for learning. Many students spent the better part of virtual school focused on computer screens that centered the learning on basic skills of language and computation. What those students missed greatly were the application opportunities and social interactions with classmates. Sadly, many others lacked the access to technology or support from adults, and they could no doubt gain from tutoring provisions and resources. Yet, nearly every student has at some point struggled mentally and socially, and more resources should be allocated to ensure access to the necessary care in both of those areas.
The adults, again, need to get this right. Focusing on whose tutoring plan (Whitmer’s or the GOP’s vetoed plan from 2021) the state implements is far less important than it is for the plan to provide children with the appropriate support in a timely and efficient manner. More counselors and more social workers should be paired with more experiential learning that promotes physical and emotional well-being.
Taken as stand-alone ideas, the pre-K expansion and tutoring supports are both noble ideas. Yet, the piecemeal approach has its limitations. Michigan needs something bold and comprehensive. Our children deserve it.
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