These are the 6 storylines that define Michigan education news in 2023

This was a transformative year for education in Michigan. Democrats took control of the state Legislature and rolled back some of the reforms enacted during Republican control.

Gone are the requirements for holding back struggling readers, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and giving letter grades to schools.

A new state education department was launched with an eye on improving outcomes for students. The state education budget invested historic amounts of money in the most vulnerable children.

The news went beyond Lansing, of course. Schools in Detroit dealt with budget cuts precipitated by the loss of federal COVID relief funding, which dried up in the district. They also tried to address high rates of chronic absenteeism.

As we head into the holidays and into a new year, here’s a look back at six big story themes from 2023:

Chronic absenteeism continues to threaten pandemic recovery

All the education reforms in the world won’t make a difference if students aren’t coming to school every day. That poses a particular problem in Michigan, where low achievement levels have driven calls for improving the way students are educated and schools are funded.

Those efforts have bumped up against data showing nearly a third of Michigan students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year, meaning they missed 18 or more school days; in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, two-thirds were chronically absent.

Chalkbeat Detroit has made reporting on chronic absenteeism a priority, because it’s important for readers to understand the consequences of frequent absences, the reasons students miss school, and the broader factors that are fueling absenteeism.

During 2023, we wrote about how Detroit’s spotty transportation options for students make it difficult for some to get to school every day. We also wrote about a state law enacted in 2015 that punishes parents of chronically absent students. If those parents receive public assistance, the state has the option of yanking that aid. Family poverty is a leading contributor to student absenteeism, and as Chalkbeat reported, some research has found that punitive approaches to chronic absenteeism don’t work. Critics argued the state shouldn’t take assistance from the very families who need it the most.

Chalkbeat took readers inside Gompers Elementary-Middle School to capture efforts to improve chronic absenteeism. We introduced you to Effie Harris, an attendance agent whose work is at the center of those efforts, and students such as Jay’Sean who were benefiting from a mentoring program that paired students at risk for chronic absence with an adult in the school. We also reported on community efforts to increase attendance.

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Finally, we reported on some positive developments following the dramatic increase in chronic absenteeism during the pandemic. The state’s 30% rate in 2022-23 was down from 38% in 2021-22, and DPSCD’s 66% rate was down from 80% in the previous year.

Democrats take control of Lansing, roll back GOP school reforms

For the first time in decades, Democrats had control of the Michigan Legislature and the governor’s office. They didn’t waste any time flexing that power, and applied much of it to the state’s schools.

Among the big moves lawmakers made during 2023: They repealed Michigan’s AF letter grade accountability system for schools. They repealed the portion of the Read by Grade 3 law that requires schools to hold back third graders who are a year or more behind in reading. They passed legislation that restored the collective bargaining rights of teachers — rights that were removed under Republican control more than a decade ago. Legislation was also enacted to remove student test scores as a factor in evaluating teachers.

Perhaps the biggest move was in the passage of a state K-12 budget that was lauded by many education experts and advocacy groups as groundbreaking, because it reflected an aggressive approach to addressing learning that was lost during the pandemic, and because it allocated more money to some of the most vulnerable students in the state.

Much of the Democratic-led education legislation passed along party lines, with Republicans largely opposed. Some of the opponents told Chalkbeat for a recent story that they believe accountability and transparency have been removed from classrooms.

New state education department launched

Among the other big political issues that grabbed headlines in Michigan was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement in July that she was creating a new education department focused on improving outcomes for students in preschool through postsecondary programs.

The new department is the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential, or MiLEAP. It is taking on some functions previously handled by the Michigan Department of Education, such as early childhood education.

Some cheered the announcement, saying it would give the governor more direct control over some important functions. But others worried that a new department would create more layers of bureaucracy. The State Board of Education, which oversees the MDE, asked the state attorney general’s office to rule on the legitimacy of the department.

The department launched this month with Michelle Richard, a Whitmer adviser, as its acting director.

Federal relief aid is on its way out in Michigan schools

As we’ve reported for more than a year, federal COVID relief funding has helped school districts pay for expanded tutoring, mental health services for students, and other resources needed to recover from the pandemic. It has also helped school districts, particularly those that are financially troubled, become more secure.

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But that money has already dried up in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which undertook the difficult task of cutting positions and laying off some staff during the spring. The federal funds don’t run out until September 2024, but because the district allocated more than half of its nearly $1.3 billion allocation toward a massive facility plan, the district hit what experts have described as a fiscal cliff sooner than most other districts in the state.

Earlier in the year, Chalkbeat reported on whether school districts are ready for the impending loss of the federal aid. And throughout the spring, we provided consistent coverage of the debate over cuts in the Detroit school district, as some in the community worried that the district could return to the days of state control, when financial crises led to routine cutbacks and school closures.

Detroit district finally gets literacy lawsuit money

The 2016 Detroit “right to literacy” lawsuit was finally fully resolved this year when the Michigan Legislature allocated $94.4 million to support literacy efforts in the Detroit school district. As part of the settlement in that suit, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had committed to including the funding in her budget proposals, but it wasn’t until Democrats took control of the Legislature that her proposal became a reality.

Now, the focus turns to how that money will be spent. There is no shortage of opinions on how that money will benefit students most. A task force required by the settlement held meetings this fall to hear from residents and is required to deliver recommendations to the district. Detroit school board members discuss options during a November retreat.

The money comes at a crucial time. Improving reading skills among Detroit schoolchildren has been a large concern for decades. Reading scores for Detroit students have ranked among the lowest in the nation over the past decade and a half.

Mixed news on early childhood education

State officials have made early childhood education a priority for years now, and this year, lawmakers took a step toward ensuring that any child, regardless of family income, is eligible to enroll in the state’s free preschool program. And Whitmer has also pushed to expand access to child care programs. Meanwhile, a report released this summer said Michigan is improving outcomes for early childhood health and education.

But the early childhood education industry in Michigan is still unstable. Staffing shortages will make expansion efforts difficult. Child care providers have demanded more funding so they can pay their workers competitive wages. And federal COVID relief money that was intended to keep child care centers open during the pandemic dried up in September, leaving some predicting the loss of the money will result in programs closing or increasing costs.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at [email protected].

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