Howes: Regional economic gains marred by education woes

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Not too many years ago, business leaders here would have swooned at the numbers packed into the Detroit Regional Chamber’s new “State of the Region” report.

Released early Wednesday, it details encouraging — and, arguably, sustainable — steps forward: 2.1 percent growth in real gross domestic product, and private sector job creation, are both exceeding the national average. In July, the regional unemployment rate of 4.6 percent matched the national average for the first time in decades. And the 20.6 percent five-year growth rate in per capita income is outpacing the nation.

Michigan leads the nation in mobility-related patents and connected autonomous vehicle projects, the chamber says, rivaling both Japan and Germany. The region attracted more than $2 billion in foreign direct investment last year, and it has added 41,000 science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) jobs over the past five years, totaling 300,000 STEM-related jobs.

“We now have the stability, the strength and the growth,” Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah said in an interview. “Where we are now is incredibly impressive considering where we were six or seven years ago. We need to do much better in educational attainment.”

That’s an understatement. For as much economic progress as the Metro Detroit region has delivered since the end of the Great Recession — including the historic bankruptcies of two hometown automakers and the city of Detroit — it’s not nearly enough.

Educational performance, especially in kindergarten through 12th grade, is another national embarrassment for a region that has an uncanny ability for producing them. So much so that yet another group of leaders, led by Meijer Inc. co-CEO Mark Murray and state Board of Education member Eileen Weiser, is pushing a presentation they call “Michigan’s Failing Schools.”

“We really do think the sky is falling,” said Doug Ross, a founder of the University Prep Schools and former chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools, who is partnering with Murray and Weiser. “As a state community we are in deep trouble. We think Michigan is falling off the edge.”

Michigan ranks 41st nationally in fourth-grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, and 42nd in fourth-grade math. The state’s African-American fourth-graders scored the lowest in the nation in reading, worse than even Mississippi. Meaning anywhere else in the nation is better.

And Michigan’s white middle-class and wealthy fourth-graders don’t score much better, ranking 49th in the country in reading. Michigan is just one of three states whose fourth-grade reading scores have declined since 2003 (the others are South Dakota and West Virginia).

“A lot of it is what others have done and we didn’t,” Ross said. “Mostly we’ve been left behind. By most of our measures, our students are vastly unprepared.”

And that has meaningful implications for the region’s long-term economic outlook and its ability to attract the likes of Inc.’s second North American headquarters. Or to be a credible contender for the high-tech workforce needed to further diversify Michigan’s manufacturing-based economy. Or for what it says about the state’s culture of education — almost none of it good.

The state of the region is mixed. Whatever its economic gains and rising home values, a society that fails to educate its children for the world as it is, not as it was, is a society failing itself and beggaring its future.

But it’s happening in slow motion, in different places at different paces. That robs leaders of the kind of single galvanizing crisis they used to restructure two bankrupt automakers and later a bankrupt Detroit.

“We want to be an honest broker of the data,” Baruah said, “good, bad and ugly.” He sees a state that has reckoned with its economic competitiveness by reforming its tax and regulatory structure; a state that is paying down debt and long-term operations; a regional economy whose manufacturing orientation is being diversified with high-tech investment and the influx of millennial employees.

If there’s one single thing downplayed in the chamber’s “State of the Region,” it’s a collective call to reverse an educational morass that is only deepening with time and complicated by a lack of focused leadership.

And if there’s one thing the chamber overlooked, officially speaking, it’s the state of the region’s leadership. It’s strong and cooperative, less partisan and more focused on solutions. It’s Republicans working with Democrats, business working with labor, city cooperating with suburbs to deliver success ... which breeds more success.

“Detroit’s in the spotlight for a comeback city,” Ford Motor Co.’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., told the Detroit Economic Club Tuesday. “But it’s not in the spotlight for what it’s doing. It just keeps happening and accelerating. It’s amazing. I do believe we’re just scratching the surface for Detroit and for this region.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.