Civil Rights Commission cites education ‘inequities’ in report inspired by Flint water crisis

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The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) on Wednesday released a 62-page report outlining inequities in Michigan’s K-12 education system. It offered specific recommendations for action that policy makers and educators can implement to make achieving educational equity a priority in Michigan schools.

The report, approved during a Zoom meeting, is the culmination of a series of public hearings and a year-long examination of disparities in K-12 education. It was inspired, officials say, after an examination of the Flint water crisis. 

“This commission believes that an adequate education is the key to unlocking a lifetime of opportunities and also is a basic civil right,” said Stacie Clayton, MCRC chair. “We learned during our education hearings that not all children receive the kind of education they deserve as their birthright. We urge policy makers, educators and other stakeholders across the state to view this report as a roadmap they can follow to help schools achieve educational equity and give all Michigan children — regardless of household income, race, residency or ability — the education they need to lead productive and fulfilling lives.”

The commission held public hearings during 2018 and 2019 in Ypsilanti, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Detroit and Clinton Township. The body heard from dozens of subject matter experts, school administrators, teachers, parents and students on the ways Michigan is falling short in its obligation to effectively educate all its children.

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Michigan has 1.4 million K-12 public schools students. Each school district, including charter schools, is appropriated at least $8,300 per student in state funding. However, some affluent districts spend more than $12,000. Most school districts receive additional funding from the federal government and other sources, but a School Finance Research Collaborative 2017 study said the average cost of educating a Michigan K-12 student is $9,590. It has argued that current state funding is inadequate. 

The MRCC report identifies these obstacles to equity in education:

  • Lack of access to early childhood education
  • Varying degrees of parental involvement
  • Funding based on declining enrollment that leaves schools grossly underfunded
  • Food insecurity
  • Lack of specialized instruction, after school and summer school programs
  • Lack of qualified, experienced teachers of color

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To achieve equity, the report suggests, public school systems “must recognize differences and distribute resources based on an understanding of how differences impact equitable access. They must also implement strategies to break down biases and barriers to equity,” including:

  • Educating on implicit biases
  • Developing racially conscious strategies for school integration
  • Changing per-student funding and Proposal A, the 1994 law that fundamentally changed how schools are funded, essentially moving away from a dominate local property tax model to a largely state tax model
  • Eliminating competition between schools
  • Increasing teacher pay
  • Eliminating legacy debt
  • Increasing special education opportunities and funding

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The report concludes with a list of recommendations for action, starting with the expansion of the Council for Government and Education on Equity and Inclusion, an Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR)-led initiative, to include representatives of the Michigan Department of Education, and establish the council as the entity responsible for implementing and overseeing the following additional recommendations:

  • Developing a statewide educational equity plan to enhance policies and accountability.
  • Ensuring that all data collected by government entities be disaggregated by race and ethnicity.
  • Encouraging schools to create local equity plans and contribute information and resources to support equitable practices.
  • Providing year-round cultural competency/race and equity education and coaching.
  • Increasing internet access for students and families.
  • Supporting a quality teacher training program, encouraging diversity in teaching roles and student enrollment.
  • Encouraging the placement of affordable public housing only in school districts that are educationally successful and can support new students who have additional needs.
  • Recognizing the overlapping roles that housing discrimination, employment discrimination, environmental racism and other racial disparities play in perpetuating educational inequity.
  • Creating a multicultural, student-led component of the Council for Government and Education on Equity and Inclusion to engage students and parents/guardians on the local level.

“This report provides a framework for the Department of Civil Rights to engage with our educational partners within state government and beyond and to begin the work of building the kind of education system in Michigan that all children deserve,” said James White, executive director of the MDCR, the operational arm of the commission.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.