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Where will Gov. Rick Snyder find his second-term mojo?

Business tax reform is done. Long-term and timely budgeting is now common. Detroit's municipal bankruptcy is over in record time. Debt is being paid down, pensions funded.

And the birthplace of the modern labor movement is the nation's 23rd right-to-work state, an act of political dissonance all its own in a state with decidedly blue leanings in recent presidential years. Big things, those, the makings of a legacy.

Absent a sweeping, multi-billion dollar deal to begin repairing Michigan's dismal roads and bridges, the governor's professed priorities for the next four years pale before his first-term record — with one possible exception: education in Detroit.

He wants to "do a better job of educating kids in Detroit;" says the community should "be actively involved in this process;" and concedes that serial emergency management of Detroit Public Schools is a failure of a process that proved far more successful in the context of municipal bankruptcy.

A decision point looms in the next month or so. The call cries out for a non-partisan move that focuses on what works and benefits the kids, not what hews to preferences of teachers unions, charter-school operators or control freaks prepared to embrace again the failed status quo.

The dismal state of public education in the city is an embarrassment and an outrage. It's a generational failure of kids who don't make the decisions, don't have the power to bring change and don't get the education they need to qualify for slots in a fast-changing workforce.

As much as competitive tax rates, sensible regulations and a welcoming business environment are critical to investment and job creation in the state, none of it is sufficient if the indigenous population is not educationally prepared to qualify for a chance to do the work.

Not just in Detroit, either. According to Business Leaders for Michigan, the state's leading business roundtable, 60 percent of available jobs within the next decade will require some form of post-secondary education — but only 30 percent of prospective employees have that level of education today.

And only 20 percent of 11-graders, based on ACT scores, are deemed college-ready, an indictment of an education system — funding, standards, expectations and performance — failing regular folks as much as it is would-be employers.

If Snyder needs a focal point for a second term, a rallying point to complement a more competitive statewide business environment and a financially restructured Detroit, this is it.

It won't be easy. Not with a new state Legislature expected to be more conservative than the one leaving the Capitol this week, and not with a voting population that demonstrates decided ambivalence to making education standards and spending higher priorities than they typically have been.

"We're at a disadvantaged position," says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, referring to comparable state support for education at all levels. "We're below average and we're trying to catch up. I'm not sure you can move fast enough."

Still, pressing for meaningful solutions to Detroit's education woes, and the state's lagging education performance more broadly, projects more technocrat than the change agent of the past four years.

Snyder says he's got more work to do making Michigan more competitive, and he's right. A 6.7 percent unemployment rate in November, the lowest since 2006, signals that things continue to move in the right direction — as does Detroit's exit from its historic bankruptcy.

That's a tough act to follow. A roads deal with lame-duck legislators, a push for more transparency and accountability in local finances and a move on schools in Detroit are necessary, but not sufficient, to propel a second-term agenda.

Nor do they close any case for taking the Snyder Show national with an eye on the 2016 presidential race, be it as a nominee, a running mate or an experienced governor with a track record for tackling seemingly intractable problems that have stymied Republican and Democratic predecessors alike.

He's got more to do, and do well, in a new political context more likely to confound him from the right than the Democratic left. Either way, the path of a meaningful second term runs through Detroit and a commitment to competitiveness.

Daniel.Howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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