Monday, December 14, 2009

Some Good Advice (But Way Late)

Oakland Press

Fix public schools or else

Sunday, December 13, 2009
Special to The Oakland Press

Will Democrats and the state’s most powerful teachers union inadvertently bring school vouchers to Michigan? Could these historic protectors of Michigan public education ultimately drag it under?

Watching what is taking place in school districts across Oakland County and the state make the question quite relevant. How ironic and tragic would it be if the Michigan Education Association, Democratic lawmakers, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a dozen or so Republicans (backed by the MEA) and a busload of complacent school superintendents and school boards ultimately helped bring vouchers to Michigan’s public schools?

How could that happen? The answer is simple. Taxpayers are fed up. Michigan residents, who are experiencing the pain of disruptive and transformational change, expect high-quality education and sensible action by our governor and legislators to put teaching, learning and children ahead of power, control and politics. They also are quite aware how change is impacting them and how the system is protecting the status quo.

When I served as state superintendent of schools, I sounded the alarm in 2004 that our current system of funding schools was unsustainable in the face of the sharply rising costs of health care, pensions and the large number of small school districts.

Shortly thereafter, I was forced out of the position by Granholm, assisted by a major shove from the MEA. If action had been taken when I recommended change, Michigan schools could have saved an estimated $4.5 billion to be invested in 21st century education initiatives by now.

Now fast forward to 2009 and house Speaker Andy Dillon’s ambitious proposal to bundle all public employee health care plans into one, with the potential to save up to $1 billion per year. His bold plan prompted MEA officials to immediately “declare war” on his efforts.

Even if Dillon’s savings estimates are off by 50 percent, we are still talking about significant money that could and should be redirected to the classroom. There is a desperate need for sensible reforms in government at all levels and specifically in our schools.

The foundation on which our public infrastructure was built (the auto industry) has been eroding for two decades and has imploded in the last year.

What we once had is now gone. We have a new reality of less revenue to support what we have had in the past. Changes need to be made, and have been denied for too long, to adjust to this new reality. Our public schools cannot be, and are not, immune to these new realities.

We must control rising health care benefits and pensions, and share services and consolidate local districts.

The actions by the MEA, standing in the way of sensible reforms and browbeating and cajoling legislators, local school boards and superintendents in light of Michigan’s new economic realities, ultimately will be self defeating.

The MEA might win the battle — but it is at great risk of losing the war.

Michigan’s constitution prohibits using government tax support for private or religious schools. In 2000, a voucher initiative was put on the statewide ballot. Opponents, led by the MEA and local school boards and using the public school establishment as foot soldiers, defeated this assault by a margin of 69 to 31 percent. It was a sharp setback to pro-voucher forces, and many thought it was the final nail in its coffin. Not necessarily so.

In November 2010, Michigan voters will be asked if they wish to hold a constitutional convention and rewrite the existing state constitution. Polls show there is massive dissatisfaction and anger toward Lansing, and voters just might take the opportunity to force change.

A metro newspaper quoted Lt. Gov. John Cherry as saying, “People are not happy with the capacity of state government to solve problems right now. … I don’t think the votes are there” to enact reforms. Sadly, the lieutenant governor is right, and the taxpayers might take matters into their own hands — and that ought to concern all the special interests in the halls of the Capitol.

When the “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” crowd gets rolling, major change might be in store for Lansing. The public understands that education matters and is willing to invest in results.

However, when they see data from the national ACT college admission test that shows Michigan ranks 42nd among the 50 states on the composite score (49th on English, 44th on math, 49th on reading, 41st on science), they question whether the current system is taking us where we need to go to be competitive in the global economy. This, coupled with the resistance to sensible change, is a prescription for a revised voucher initiative or some other massive assault on public education.

The status quo is quickly disappearing as a sensible option.

Michigan is in stiff competition to receive an estimated $600 million from President Obama’s “Race to the Top” federal education funding initiative. It is one of the new president’s most innovative tools to spur states to overhaul the change-resistant school culture and prepare our children for a hypercompetitive economy.

Without serious structural changes that push more of Michigan’s existing resources to the classroom, our state will be hard pressed to demonstrate that it is committed to change and deserving of these new, targeted stimulus investments. Michigan has until the end of this year to submit its application to the feds. How do we stand out among the states when we are content to muddle along?

When other states are raising their innovative sails high, it appears, once again, that Michigan is content to drop anchor in the past.

Our students will confront a changing, disruptive, information-and-technologically driven global economy that requires innovation, creativity and talent. Are we investing our limited state resources in ways that will ensure that they are prepared for this future? The answer, under the current power structure in Michigan, is a resounding no!

The rest of the world is not sitting idly by waiting for us to get our act together. At a time when ideas and work can, and do, effortlessly move around the globe, the states and nations that get their system of education right will prosper in the 21st century. We are on the wrong track in Michigan.

Death spiral

Michigan is caught up in a perfect storm of losing people, businesses and the taxes they pay. Michigan gets less populated, less educated and poorer because of people and business fleeing our state. Since 2001, out-migration has cost Michigan 465,000 people, the equivalent of half the population of Detroit. The rate of exodus, one of the worst in the nation, is accelerating. Nearly 109,000 more people left Michigan last year than moved in. It is reported that our state loses a family every 12 minutes, and the families who are leaving are the people the state desperately needs to kick-start our economic rebound — young, well-educated, high-income earners. It is change-or-die time for Michigan schools.

Many school boards and administrators have been conspirators with the MEA to avoid change. As long as money could be extracted from taxpayers via local millage votes before Proposal A in 1994, and from the governor and state Legislature ever since, everyone has been content to maintain a virtual state of homeostasis.

Our state continues to lose jobs in roaring tsunamis and replace them in teardrops. Even if our economy improves dramatically, we simply cannot afford the cost structure under our current system of public education. Covering the rising cost of pensions and health care for our schools would require up to a half-billion-dollar investment per year ($300 per student times 1.7 million students) for the foreseeable future. This leaves no money for schools to invest in programs and services that will prepare our students for the future. Schools have not seen an increase of this magnitude for years; hence, superintendents and school boards have become “Pac-Man,” gobbling up or cutting other school functions to pay for escalating health care and pension costs. This is unsustainable.

The governor and Legislature should either have the political courage to adequately fund the status quo or make the necessary changes.

There have been countless studies and recommendations from distinguished organizations to address the structural funding crisis facing our schools, including: The Center For Michigan (; Business Leaders for Michigan (formerly Detroit Renaissance) (; Citizens Research Council of Michigan ( and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (

In addition, Granholm appointed a bipartisan Emergency Financial Advisory Panel, co-chaired by former Govs. William Milliken and James Blanchard and stacked with knowledgeable Lansing insiders, that offered recommendations on how best to avoid ongoing budget crises like Michigan is experiencing now. Granholm never acted on her panel’s recommendations.

Each of these groups spells out ways for Michigan to make sensible changes while fairly supporting its teachers and public schools that are vital to our economic rebound and prosperity. The time for studies, delays, debates and talking is over. We need the governor and legislators to act.

The MEA has considerable clout in Lansing. It underwrites Democrats and Republicans alike and is calling in its chips to prevent change. As an example, newly elected state senator and former state Rep. Mike Nofs has been a longtime supporter of the MEA and was endorsed by the union in his recent successful special election Senate bid.

At a time when Michigan and the schools the taxpayers support demand adaptability, creativity, flexibility, innovation, problem-solving and versatility, what we have from the MEA and the politicians they have supported is rigidity, conformity, protectionism and standing pat for the status quo.

Those who profess to support public education should take notice: If you give people a choice … they may take it.

New three Rs

Historically, we spoke about the three Rs of education: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. We need the new three Rs in Michigan education: Reform, Restructure and Reinvent. There should be no agreement on the fourth new R — Revenue/taxes — until these structural changes are well under way.

Suggesting such ideas has brought the wrath of the MEA down on my head, Dillon’s and others who dare to speak truth to power. Many public schools across the state are financially wobbly today due to the strain of inadequate state funding that has not, and cannot keep pace with rising health care and pension costs, especially when combined with limited or declining enrollment coupled with the inaction to consolidate school districts.

To make matters worse, the state continues to take in less sales tax revenue than projected, so dollars for the school aid fund will be hundreds of millions short as the new year begins. To add insult to injury, the current Democratic plan to slap a Band-Aid on the current school-funding crisis by tapping the federal stimulus money set aside for next fiscal year is simply postponing the day of reckoning.

In addition, Granholm’s plan to further tax tobacco, tax bottled water and close tax loopholes is anemic, at best, and will not raise enough revenue to stop the bleeding. It is the equivalent of plugging the hole in the Titanic with a wine cork. Even if these “revenue enhancements” are enacted, school funding will remain in crisis.

While some might doubt that our system of public education could topple, it is increasingly unstable, unbalanced and ultimately unsustainable unless bold structural changes are made to alter its present course. This will require the type of real change and leadership from the governor, Legislature and state school board that has been lacking to date.

The MEA is intent on not altering course and will attack change advocates as anti-Democrat, anti-teacher and anti-labor. I am none of the above. In fact, I was a youth advocate long before becoming a Democrat. I support these changes because doing nothing will bankrupt our schools and state, and drag our children under in the process.

As the health care, pension and school district consolidation (and other) reform issues are debated in the coming months, lawmakers need to ask themselves — and be asked by taxpayers — whose side are you on? Will they stand up for the teachers’ union and the status quo or take a stand for our children and the collective future of our state?

It would be sad as well as ironic if those professing to support our public schools and children ended up destroying both. Inaction has consequences, too. If backed into a corner, voters will choose change.

Tom Watkins of Northville served as Michigan superintendent of schools from 2001 to ‘05. Read other Watkins works at

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