December 22, 2009 at 1:00 am

Amber Arellano

Michigan kids: A passion becomes a new education organization

Harrison Blackmond plans to channel energy into new group, Democrats for Education Reform

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Before Harrison Blackmond turned 65, he planned to spend his retirement traveling and hanging out with his family.

Suddenly, in September, it all changed.

Surprising even himself, he made a commitment to use his time left on this earth to make sure Michigan urban kids get a far better public education than most are getting now.

This is a hopeful holiday story that you don't expect to find in the fishy trenches of Lansing politics, especially last week as special interests were descending like vultures to get contracts and look out for themselves while the state Legislature completed the requirements -- and much nonsense -- for Michigan's application to the national Race to the Top competition, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Race to the Top is about kids, you say? It's supposed to be. Tell that to some of the cyber-schools that got new government contracts out of the legislation. Hmm, there was almost no data to show these vendors have a strong academic record.

But voila! A Republican special interest group wanted that vendor to get a deal, so lawmakers made it happen. That's politics.

And that's why Blackmond is so darn refreshing.

New priorities

While lawmakers were beating their chests for Race to the Top's theatrical show, Blackmond was announcing the creation of a new group that -- shockingly -- wants to help make students a greater priority in state policymaking.

He is opening a new Michigan chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a national group dedicated challenge a failing U.S. educational status quo that is often championed, maintained and protected by Democrats who are heavily influenced and paid off by teacher unions.

The only way to counter such a force is by beating it at its own game. In politics, that means raising money and organizing constituencies that will help elect Democrats who support education reform, even if it conflicts with union and other special interest groups' priorities.

Blackmond plans to raise at least a few hundred thousand dollars that his group can use to help elect reform-minded Dems, particularly in places like Detroit and Pontiac where state Dems often carry the water of intellectually bankrupt institutions such as the Detroit Public Schools' elected board.

Lifelong passion

Back to the good story: working feverishly for free wasn't exactly how Blackmond had envisioned his retirement years.A trip home changed everything.

Blackmond took his family to see his hometown of tiny Troy, Ala. He attended segregated, all-black schools. He and his family were walking when they came upon his childhood school, a reminder of a lost era -- and the people who did so much for him.

The teachers who believed in him. The rigorous lessons that prepared him to compete with some of the nation's brightest students.

Later he would move to Michigan and find he was just as well-prepared as his northern peers.

Still later he would attend the University of Michigan law school. Much later he would work as an attorney for the Michigan Education Association, and still later become president of the Detroit chapter of the Black Alliance of Educational Options.

"Everything I am, all the success I've had in my life, is because of education," Blackmond said last week. And so standing there, in front of the little school house, Blackmond changed his mind. Forget the traveling. Forget the lounging. He would dedicate his retirement to his life-long passion: education.

"Detroit's not the only place that's suffering, educationally. You've got Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw," he says. "Hopefully we'll get every Democrat in the state to support our efforts. And we think we will."

There are other Blackmonds out there, young and old, black and white and brown, women and men. Many Michiganians share his concern.

Who knows what could change in 2010 with their help.

Who knows, maybe one of them will start the Republicans for Education Reform. What an alliance that would make.

Amber Arellano is a Detroit News editorial writerE-mail her">

Join Arellano and other journalists at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 23, for a year-end review of metro Detroit at Detroit Public Radio's "Detroit Today" show on 101.9 fm orat:">