Mississippi and Michigan are the states in the country with the lowest percentage of African-American students reading at or above grade level in eighth grade. Mississippi teaches just 8 percent of its Black students to read to national standards in middle school; Michigan teaches just 9 percent. [The national average is for Black students is 15 percent.]
In both states, about half are functionally illiterate, tested at the “Below Basic” level by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As the percentage of students reading at grade level changes little between 8th and 12th grades, it means that more than 90 percent of Black students in these states are unlikely to graduate from high school college- and career-ready.
It would, of course, be unjust to say that in the 21st century the goal of educators in Michigan and Mississippi is to so limit educational opportunities for Black students that 90 percent cannot read at grade level in middle school, that half are functionally illiterate, that nearly a fifth of Black adults in Michigan and a quarter of those in Mississippi have not finished high school. But what can we say about institutions, and those in responsible positions in those institutions, that year after year fail to meet their responsibilities 90 percent of the time?
Mississippi, the quintessential post-Confederate state, has the nation’s highest percentage of descendants of enslaved Africans: 37 percent. In Michigan, far to the north, only 14 percent of the population is Black, although there are many more African-Americans in Michigan, 1.4 million, than in Mississippi—1.1 million. Mississippi did not repeal its constitutionally mandated restrictions on voting by means of poll taxes and literacy tests until 1975 nor the requirement for segregated schools until 1978 (a quarter century after Brown). Michigan has never had a poll tax or a literacy test for the franchise, nor de jure segregated schools.
While the Black population of Mississippi is fairly evenly distributed about the state, although especially dense in the plantation counties along the Mississippi river, that of Michigan is highly concentrated in its southeastern corner, primarily the formerly industrial cities of Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, with a Brown University segregation index for the Detroit metropolitan area of 80, on a scale where 60 is considered very high.
Despite their similarities, there are major differences in the ways that the two states distribute, or, rather, restrict, educational opportunities. In Michigan, over half of Black families and one-third of White families have incomes low enough to qualify their children for free- or reduced-price school lunches; in Mississippi, over one-third of White families and over two-thirds of Black families have qualifying incomes (or qualifying lack of incomes). Both states educate very few of their children, of either race, from low-income families. Each brings just seven percent of their African-American children from low-income families to reading proficiency in eighth grade. Mississippi manages this marginally better than Michigan for its White students from comparatively poor families: 25 percent to 23 percent.
The picture is quite different among students from more prosperous families. Mississippi does much better than Michigan for those among them who are descendants of enslaved African, educating just over a quarter to reading proficiency in eighth grade, which we should note is more than either state does for its impoverished White students. Michigan only manages to bring 12 percent of its students from the upper half of the Black family income distribution to grade level in reading in middle school. Nearly four times that percentage of middle class White children in Michigan learn to read proficiently in eighth grade.
One interpretation of these results would be that while educational opportunity in Mississippi’s public schools is chiefly distributed by income for both Black and White students, while in Michigan, educational opportunities are chiefly distributed by race, with less regard to income. The gap between lower income Black and White students in each state is approximately the same, but the gap between higher income Black and White students is much larger in Michigan. More than twice the percentage of Black students from higher income families in Mississippi read at grade level are brought to grade level in reading than in Michigan.
However, it should be noted that while among White residents of Mississippi, almost two-thirds have incomes high enough to make students from those families ineligible for the National Lunch Program. Just one-third of Black families have incomes sufficient to make their students ineligible for the National Lunch Program. In other words, dividing educational resources by economic class in Mississippi results in increased opportunities for two-thirds of those from White families and decreased opportunities for two-thirds of those from Black families.
At the classroom level, out-of-school suspensions in both states are inflicted on a racial basis. Schools in Mississippi give Black students more than one-out-of-school suspension three times as often as they do to White students; Michigan does this four times as often to Black as White students, resulting in nearly a fifth of Michigan’s Black students being kept out of the classroom at some point in their school careers. Research has shown that out-of-school suspensions have an efficient negative effect on student learning and frequently lead to the need to repeat grades and, eventually, to leaving school without a diploma.
Mississippi reports a graduation rate for its Black students of 77 percent, for its White students, 83 percent, a six-percentage point racial difference, considerably less than the 13 percent national difference. Michigan reports a graduation rate for its Black students of 68 percent, for its White students, 83 percent, close to a 15 percent racial difference. This is bad enough. But if we look at the basic skill of reading mastered by these students when they were in eighth grade, we can conclude that just nine percent of Black students in Michigan and eight percent of Black students in Mississippi graduate able to read at least at the level desired for middle school students. This means that 59 percent of Black students in Michigan are graduating without the necessary skills for college and a career.
The failure of Michigan to adequately educate its Black residents can be traced to the inequitable support of schools they attend. Support for public education in Michigan is directly related to the racial make-up of the schools in each district. In the schools of Ann Arbor—where the University of Michigan is located—the schools are more than 90 percent White. The median family income is considerably higher than the state average, as are teacher salaries. The pupil-to-teacher ratio is lower (better) than the state average.
In Detroit, with a student enrollment that is 80 percent Black and a median family income just above half of the state average, teachers are paid less than the state average and the pupil-to-teacher ratio is considerably higher. Nearly 200,000 of Michigan’s 280,000 Black public school students are in the districts of the Detroit metropolitan area and nearby Flint. The Detroit public schools are under state control and therefore the state government—the legislature and the governor—are directly responsible for how they educate, or fail to educate, their students. The decisions leading to these disparities are not “institutional” or “structural.” They are the decisions of the governor and the legislature of the state of Michigan to give few educational opportunities to the descendants of enslaved Africans, children for whose education they are individually and collectively responsible.
[Some will mention Michigan’s charter schools and the successes the high-quality operators have had in improving student achievement. But the state allows too many low-quality charters to remain open despite lagging performance. Fourteen percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes; while just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education.]
The only districts in Mississippi with large numbers of Black students are the public schools in the state capitol, Jackson, enrolling 28,000 Black students and those in Desoto County, in the far northwest corner of the state, near Memphis, which enroll 11,000. According to NAEP, none of the eighth-graders attending Mississippi’s big-city schools read at grade level or above.
Private schools have little effect on the educational opportunities of Black students from low-income families in either Mississippi or Michigan. Private school tuition in Mississippi for a family with two children, one in elementary school and one in high school, would amount to nearly a third of the family income of the average Black family in the state. Similarly, an average Black family in Michigan, with two children, one in elementary school and one in high school, would have to find nearly 40 percent of its income to pay for their private school tuition.
Michigan and Mississippi have separate paths to limiting educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved Africans. That followed by Michigan is the racially targeted unequal distribution of educational resources. That followed by Mississippi is economically focused disparities in education quality in the context of centuries of Black poverty. They both work equally well to perpetuate the status of descendants of enslaved Africans as three-fifths of an American.
College graduation is increasingly important for employment and other economic and social factors.
In Michigan, college graduation rates for both Black and White adults are lower than national averages: 29 percent of White residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and 17 percent of Black residents, compared to the national averages of 32 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The college graduation rate for Black residents of Michigan is almost exactly three-fifths of the White college graduation rate in the state. In large part because of the state’s failure to educate its African-American students, while the median family income of White residents is $68,300, that of Black residents is just over half of that: $37,100. The poverty rate for Black families in Michigan is three and a half times that for White families.
In Mississippi, the state’s percentage of Black adults with Bachelor’s degrees (14 percent) is also three-fifths of the percentage of White adults with Bachelor’s degrees or higher (24 percent). The unemployment rate for African-Americans in the state is more than twice that for White residents. The median family incomes of both White and Black Mississippi residents are also considerably below national averages. That of White residents is $62,200, that of Black residents is, again, just over half that: $32,500, hardly different from the ratio in Michigan. The poverty rate for Mississippi’s Black families is three times that for White families.
Recently, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was charged with misconduct in office, a felony, for his role in the Flint water crisis. It is an interesting precedent. The officials – governors, legislators, members of state and local boards of education and others—who have been responsible for restricting educational opportunities for Black residents of these states could act differently. They could provide the resources needed to close the gaps between the education now provided to their Black students and that provided to their White students.
Michigan’s political leaders could improve educational opportunities for all students. They have not. They do not. It is not because they cannot. It is because they will not.