Reality is turning relentlessly negative for Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan’s Republican leadership.
Nothing’s going right. Politics and new budget woes confound their rescue of Detroit Public Schools and aid for Flint’s contaminated water crisis. Business tax revenue is plunging, and opposition to state oversight is intensifying.
The governor’s DPS emergency manager, retired bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, agreed this week to back a forensic audit of the city’s troubled school system, an expensive and politically charged attempt to detail incompetence and mismanagement while DPS was under state control.
The governor’s effort to rescue the district by paying off its $515 million in debt and seeding a successor district with $200 million to make a fresh start continues to be undercut by a string of negatives. Corruption indictments, a two-day teachers sickout and funding irregularities are emboldening House Republicans to resist a bailout Snyder cannot deliver alone.
His bid to speed state help to Flint is mired in budget machinations exacerbated by a revenue shortfall and plunging corporate tax receipts. You want ammunition in an election year to buttress the charge that business isn’t paying its fair share? This is it, no matter what the countervailing details.
The accumulating evidence of woe, complicated by a politically wounded governor and Republican lawmakers he mostly cannot control, threatens to turn a series of distractions into a knot of dysfunction. Absent strong leadership, that has potentially meaningful implications for the state’s economic momentum, its widely touted comeback and its aspirations.
Case in point: Dow Chemical Co.’s Midland operations, pursuing a merger with DuPont & Co., are rumored to be the target of rival states looking to exploit Michigan’s preoccupied administration and weakened economic development group. Not really surprising, that. What’s surprising is how poorly Michigan is equipped to fight back.
Second case: The battle for leadership to become the center for the next-generation auto (and “mobility”) industry is well underway, with challenges coming from Silicon Valley and Colorado, Boston and Austin. Metro Detroit, despite its comparatively large concentration of engineering talent, is guaranteed nothing ... in a state that right now looks to be having trouble getting out of its own way.
Third case: Education Trust-Midwest released a report Thursday leveling a devastating critique of educational achievement in Michigan. It shows steep performance declines for white, black, Latino students and all three combined, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, for the dozen years between 2003 to 2015.
The biggest shocker to all those predisposed to believing the worst about minority academic achievement is the collapse in the academic performance of Michigan’s white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests. In fourth-grade reading, white students ranked 49th out of 50 last year, down from 13th in 2003; in fourth-grade math they dropped to 47th from 13th in 2003; in eighth-grade reading, to 42nd from 12th.
For blacks and Latinos, the decline in performance was less precipitous. But the overall message stands: educational achievement in Michigan continues to slip further behind rival states. They are doing more and achieving better results, underscoring just how much the state needs to improve to catch up.
It’s embarrassing. It’s also a harsh indictment of the recurring public-policy fights between retrograde union interests, the education establishment and a Republican agenda determined to purge organized labor from the public square — even if the price to be paid is producing a generation of dunces.
Now that’s leadership! No, it’s denial. And yet the governor, the Legislature, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation, leading business groups and some in the news media (like me) keep pushing the idea that the state can be, should be, the intellectual heart of the 21st-century, wired, connected, autonomous auto industry.
With educational achievement like that, who is everyone kidding? Not the CEOs who say Michigan can be, should be, a “top10” state; that it should build on the convergence of the auto industry and the high-tech stuff of Silicon Valley; that Michigan’s Big Three universities can be foundations for the next-generation economy.
They know better. But it’s probably not a sufficient wake-up call, either. This is the kind of place where only existential crises (think the global financial meltdown that forced the bankruptcies of two Detroit automakers in 2009, or the Chapter 9 restructuring of Detroit in 2014) produce meaningful change.
What will it take to force improvement in Michigan public education, or to inject some reality into the state’s relative competitiveness? More than another depressing survey whose results don’t comport with the priorities of interest groups and ideologues; more than seeing the state’s largest district teetering on the financial edge and waiting for it to collapse.
As if searching to flip the narrative, the governor’s office Wednesday issued a statement touting the fact that Michigan has created (or had created inside its borders) 461,000 private-sector jobs since December 2010. The state unemployment rate is running below the national average of 4.8 percent. And the labor market has expanded for 10 straight months.
All true, but beside the point. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. If leaders don’t fill it and chart a future, someone else will.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.