Durant: Give Michigan schools more freedom to innovate

Clark Durant

We have a public school crisis in Detroit and in Michigan. It is about outcomes, money and the need for new schools.

Outcomes: Almost 85 percent of children in grades K-8 public schools in Detroit, both traditional district and charter schools, are below grade level in reading and math. Other urban areas are similar. This must change.

Money: Public school districts and charters either have crippling debt or a shortage of funds to make possible an excellent education. This must change.

New schools: There aren’t any. This must change too.

The current discussion on solving this crisis is too limited. Even if the debt is satisfied, funding equalized and all children are at grade level, a money and outcomes crisis remains. The world is changing dramatically, current public school models are not adapted to 21st century needs, existing public funding models don’t work, and new public schools are not allowed to be created.

Before a packed house at the Detroit Economic Club, Michael Dell, the CEO of one of the world’s largest technology services company, said technology is dramatically driving the creation of new businesses and jobs providing greater value for customers. Its use is unshackled, unpredictable, immediate and infinite. “And,” he said, “the future does not care if you’re ready.”

Dell and state business leaders say that public schools — whether traditional or charter — do not fully prepare students for our new data driven emerging 21st century technology economy. Our children are now at great risk of unemployment or job dissatisfaction. The current funding and delivery models for public education fail our children and our future.

What change is necessary? No one knows for sure. But, we need new rules to get there. In 1995, had we asked phone manufacturers, retailers, map makers, taxi drivers or others what will their businesses look like in 20 years, none saw the scale of change, value and choices to come. But within a broad framework of the right rules, Apple, Amazon, Google, Uber and countless others innovated, took risks and generated new and huge investment. Then, with great people, they created enormous new wealth for millions by delivering relevant transforming affordable new products. The lives of all of us are enriched.

Public schools need more freedom to innovate and generate new funding. Students/parents need more school choices. Public schools can address different student aspirations. Students should choose a traditional curriculum or a school with a curriculum aligned for a quicker path to college and/or a job. The focus might be the creative and collaborative arts, business, health care, coding, app development, data analysis, engineering and the trades, all with a mix of self-study, project-based work, real employment opportunities, and new environments beyond a student’s own. A fulfilling life is the goal. Character matters, too.

Real innovation in governance, teaching, learning, compensation, funding, unbundled services and product development are necessary for better and more relevant performance outcomes.

The state Legislature must:

■Allow the creation of new public school options, new funding models and more parent/student choice.

■Encourage educational savings accounts and third party investment; allow new public corporations for public education, and find ways to reduce/eliminate all state requirements except for meaningful outcomes and the health and safety of the children.

■Encourage cities to set up education commissions to issue “seals of excellence” and to publicize to every parent in every neighborhood what works and what doesn’t.

■Issue select specialty licenses for Uber drivers who can get poor children with “smart cards” to the best schools.

Uber, Google, Amazon, Apple, Meijer, Kroger, the car companies and countless enterprises demonstrate that 1) if consumers can make real choices and 2) public enterprises are free to meet people’s needs, then you get higher performance and quality consumer-desired outcomes. And more money then gets invested.

Michigan limits how we fund and educate children for success in the 21st century. That must change. The future doesn’t care if we don’t catch up. We should care. Our Michigan constitution created a government by the people to secure “the blessings of freedom undiminished to ourselves and our posterity.”

“Freedom undiminished” will make possible better outcomes, more money and new schools, available for rich and poor alike.

Clark Durant is co-founder of Cornerstone Schools and former president of the state Board of Education.