STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Michigan children are guaranteed a free education, but not necessarily a quality one

user: Bart Everson

The type of education a child in Michigan gets depends in large part on where he or she lives. That's because Michigan is under no legal obligation to provide an "equitable" or "adequate" education for all its citizens. The only thing Michigan is legally required to do in terms of schools is provide a "free" education. And we all know that free does not necessarily equal quality. 

Here is what our state constitution says about education: 

Sec. 2. The Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin.

So, we've promised our children a free education, but is it equitable and adequate? That's the question we posed in our documentary, The Education Gap. (If you haven't heard it, click on the link and take a listen. You may be surprised at how much of a difference your zip code makes in terms of educational opportunities.)

The equitable and adequate question is also at the heart of a recent lawsuit against the Highland Park school district. As my colleague, Kate Wells, reported last week, the ACLU sued the district and the state of Michigan, saying students were not taught basic literacy skills. Here's an excerpt:

In fact, according to the court’s minority opinion, a majority of fourth-graders tested below “proficient” on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program’s reading test. A full 87% of those fourth-graders tested below “proficient” in math. In high school, at least 90% of students failed the state’s reading, math, and writing tests. Every student failed the social studies and science tests. Many classrooms didn’t have heat, textbooks were rare, student records were basically nonexistent, and for a while a homeless man was able to live in the facilities without anyone noticing. So the ACLU sued the state and the district on behalf of eight Highland Park kids, claiming that students have a constitutional right to a quality education.

That last part – that students "have a constitutional right to a quality education" – that's key.
Does the Michigan constitution require a free education for its citizens? Yes. Quality? Not necessarily. And so that's how the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in the so-called "right-to-read" case; using the state constitution as its guide, the Court of Appeals ruled two to one against the students. 

Writing for the majority, Judge Kathleen Jansen says, “While there is little genuine controversy that the district defendants have abysmally failed their pupils, the mechanism to correct this failure is not through the court system…” First off, Jansen looked at the claim that the state is constitutionally obligated to give kids a quality education. While she finds that the executive branch is “encouraged” to provide an education, the constitution doesn’t make it mandatory. That’s because the constitution gives the Legislature, not the executive branch, the job of providing and financing free public schools. So the state has a more supervisory, indirect role in a student’s education, and they’re fine so long as they’re providing schools with the necessary tools – which they are, the state argues, because other schools are doing just fine in the same system.

Now, Highland Park students are by no means the only ones in Michigan who are struggling. All groups of Michigan students – black, white, poor, rich – are losing ground academically compared to their peers in other states:

There's lots more research I could include here, but you get the picture. Now whether the poor state of our education system is due to a lack of money (which the Legislature controls) or requires some kind of more systemic, supervisory overhaul (executive branch), I'll leave that debate to the lawyers and judges and, of course, you.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.