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Survey shows dissatisfaction with Michigan public schools

kids in classroom
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio
The Detroit College Promise awards DPS seniors $500 if they attend a Michigan college or university.

A survey conducted by a Michigan school-improvement advocacy group shows people in the state want to see education become a higher priority. 

The survey, conducted for the organization Your Child, found over three-fourths of respondents believe Michigan's state government should make education one of its top focuses, while only 17% believe it actually is a top priority.

Your Child is a public awareness campaign in Michigan seeking better performing public schools. It's funded by  Insyght Institute, a not-for-profit run by Ed Sarpolus -- who is also the Project Director for Your Child. Eileen Weiser, member of the Michigan Board of Education, serves as an advisor for the organization. Other advisors include Westland Mayor Bill Wild and Junior Achievement President Margaret Trimer-Hartley.

Sarpolus said while there are other issues to address in Michigan, education still needs immediate attention. 

"At this moment in time we can't take priorities away from Flint, but how do we groom the future generations to deal with the problems like Flint?" Sarpolus asked. "That starts with education."

Sarpolus said there could be serious repercussions down the line if Michigan schools continue to underperform, and residents are taking notice. Wages will to stagnate and talent will continue to leave the state if the schools aren't improved, he said. 

Different rating organizations rank Michigan at different levels nationally, but generally the state has lost ground in recent years. 

Timothy Jones was one of the survey respondents. He teaches social studies at Ecorse Community High School, and said he often finds students start the year unprepared for his class. 

"The majority of my students are at a third and fourth grade reading level, and it's hard to teach a freshmen U.S. History with a textbook they can't read," he said. 

While Jones only spoke from his experience at one school, Your Child's survey found 26% of 18-29 year olds believe high school graduates are ready for college. 

Amelia Emerson is a former public school teacher, has two children and lives in Redford Township. She said she moved her daughter out of the local high school and into a charter school for the second half of her senior year. Emerson's son, a kindergartner, goes to school in Livonia. 

"I would like to see change," she said of Michigan's schools generally. 

According the survey, which reached 1,000 people by phone across the state, 46% of Michiganders believe education has gotten worse in recent years. A large majority also believe the state provides too little funding for schools generally.

A report from December found the state has cut K-12 funding by 7.5% since 2008.

But money is only part of the answer.

Sarpolus said of equal importance is thoughtful organization and implementation of teaching methods within schools. While plenty of people are passionate about school reform, he said there needs to be a unified voice and coherent plan. 

"It's not just the money but it's basically how it's being spent," he said. "Money alone will not solve the problem."

State superintendent Brian Whiston recently unveiled his "Top Ten in 10 Years" plan, which pledges to make Michigan a top-ranking school system nationally within a decade. 

Whiston said in February that he too believes money has less impact on improving schools than people think, and his plan includes a wide array of organizational and philosophical changes. 

"How do we get them excited about going to school? I think we do that by investing in them as individuals and say, 'What is it that you want to accomplish, and how do we help you accomplish it,' " he said last month.

Whiston was not available for an interview Thursday. 

This post has been updated.

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