K-12 public schools in Michigan enroll about 1.7 million students, with 41% in poverty, 4% learning English, 28% minorities, and annual expenditures of just over $17 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
Michigan courts rejected plaintiffs’ equal protection claims against the state school funding system in two cases, most recently in 1984. Plaintiffs have not yet filed claims of inadequate educational opportunity under the state constitution’s education article.
In 2012, the ACLU of Michigan filed a “right to read” lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Education and Highland Park School District alleging severe deprivation of education in reading and writing, in violation of the state constitution, a state statute, and the U.S. constitution. The Michigan law that plaintiffs seek to enforce requires assistance to bring students’ skills to grade level if they do not score satisfactorily on specific tests. The state court hearing this case denied the state’s motion to dismiss, and the parties are in discovery.
In 1972, in Milliken v. Green, also known as Governor v. State Treasurer, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the state’s system of school finance, which resulted in inequality in per-pupil expenditure among districts, violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution. The court concluded that in Michigan, education was a fundamental interest, wealth was a suspect class, and the state had no compelling interest in, or even a rational basis for classifications based on wealth that caused inequalities in public school funding. However, the following year, on rehearing, the court vacated that decision and dismissed the case by a one-sentence order stating that certification of the constitutional questions was improvidently granted.
The plaintiffs in East Jackson Public Schools v. State of Michigan, 20 school districts and students from those districts, sought a declaratory judgment that the state’s system of school finance violated the state constitution because it produced unequal per-student funding among districts. 348 N.W.2d 303 (Mich. Ct. App. 1984). On a motion for summary judgment, the state Court of Appeals held that education is not a fundamental right under the state constitution, that the state's obligation to provide a system of free public education is "not synonymous with an obligation to provide equal per student funding between districts," and that the school financing system did not deny the students equal protection of the laws.
In 2012, plaintiffs filed S.S. v. State of Michigan on behalf of children in the Highland Park School District. Shocking examples of shortfalls in students' reading and writing skills, as presented in the ACLU of Michigan's complaint, allege extremely insufficient academic programs. A 1993 state law designed to address reading proficiency and prevent major deficits from developing requires all students to be tested in reading. Those identified as not proficient must receive "special assistance reasonably expected to enable [them] to bring [their] reading skills to grade level within 12 months."
The court papers also point out that the state has taken over this school district and announced plans to turn the schools over to a charter operator. The application process does not ask charter operators for any proof that they will be able to address these severe literacy issues. The plaintiffs ask the court (1) to order remedial relief to students for the denial of the assistance required by the state statute, and (2) to compel defendants to ensure that teachers with appropriate training and credentials are assigned to deliver the remediation services. The S.S. plaintiffs also seek class certification within this high-poverty school district, where 88% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Mich. Const. art. VIII, § 1.
“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.” Mich. Const. art. VIII, § 2.
Though the Michigan Supreme Court, in Milliken v. Green, held that education was a fundamental right in the state, the court later vacated that decision, leaving its opinion on the issue unclear. The court has not revisited the question.
A state appellate court, in East Jackson Public Schools v. State of Michigan, concluded that education is not a fundamental right in Michigan, and that the state's obligation to provide a system of free public education under the Michigan constitution does not create an “obligation to provide equal educational (financial) support.” However, this court recognized a state obligation to provide an “adequate education” and noted that "[t]here is no allegation that any pupil has been or will be deprived of an opportunity for a free public education, or of an adequate opportunity for education. . . . [t]here is no allegation that any school district fails to provide its students with an adequate education measured by any standard."
Michigan first developed the Michigan School Readiness Program (MSRP) as a pilot program in 1985. The program officially changed its name to the “Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP)” in the 2008-2009 school year through the School Aid Act of 2008. The program is ranked 7 out of 10 out of 10 on the established quality indicators, and served 16% of 4-year olds in 2009-2010.
The statute authorizing funding for the GSRP program cites the need to fund pre-K in order to "improve the readiness and subsequent achievement of educationally disadvantaged children.” The manual for implementation of the school readiness program acknowledges that children who are provided with a high-quality pre-K experience show significant developmental improvements.
At least half of participating children must live with families whose income does not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level. A child meeting this income criteria must also exhibit one of 24 risk factors enumerated by the state board of education. Risk factors include low family income, low birth weight, English as a second language, and incarcerated parent. Other children not exhibiting risk factors. Families whose income exceeds 300% of the federal poverty level must exhibit 2 or 3 of the risk factors to be eligible for GSRP. Children may receive services either directly from a school district or through a public or private provider who has either subcontracted with a public school or received a competitive GSRP grant. Most programs are center-based, although some providers offer home-based services.
Center-based programs must provide sessions of a minimum of 2 ½ hours of teacher/child interaction per day for at least 4 days per week for a minimum of 30 weeks. Providers also may offer full-day programs.
There are also provisions for home-based programs, which are required to provide a minimum of 20 home visits to each family during the first year of operation and a minimum of 30 home visits for each continuing year.
There are two funding streams for this program. School districts receive funding on a formula basis based on the number of eligible children in the district. There is also a competitive grant system that has been allocated for MSRP services provided by public and private child care centers and agencies.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Michigan served 16% of all 4-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2009-2010.
The program has been given a rating of 7 out of 10 by NIEER.
The program requires that teacher assistants have Child Development Associate degrees and that teachers have a Bachelor’s degree. The program does have a limited class size, an appropriate student to teacher ration, and screening and referral services.
However, the program does not have a monitoring program or provide at least one meal a day to students, nor does it require teachers to complete at least 15 hours of in-service per year, failing these NIEER benchmarks.
The Michigan GSRP program provides for at least annual review to ensure implementation of all program components and an assessment of the readiness and progress through first grade of children participating in the school readiness program. The state also funds an on-going longitudinal study of program participants.
Michigan’s Promise Zones legislation increases student access to college. It enables a certain number of low-wealth Michigan communities to offer significant scholarships to all of their public high school graduates, for use at any public college or university in the state where they have gained admission.