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Opinion: Helpful oversight can drive school progress

Phil Pavlov

Education is a tough policy issue. These days, there is widespread agreement that our public schools need serious improvement. But the devil, as they say, is always in the details. The “how” generates anything but consensus.

Still, even the understanding that things need to change is new – and welcome. For decades, status quo was the norm at the Capitol in Lansing: just send the money out the door every year, and let school boards and superintendents figure it out.

That mentality helped push Michigan schools to the bottom of the pack nationally. Testing doesn’t tell us everything, but gold standards like the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) are a helpful barometer. Since 2003, other states have consistently outpaced Michigan on education outcomes.

While local control of schools is an important Michigan tradition, there are some key areas where the state should exercise general oversight in order to drive progress. Over the past eight years, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature have made significant strides.

First, we righted school finances with benefit cost sharing, pension reforms, insurance savings and an early warning system that gives them expert financial help before they run up insurmountable deficits. By 2017, the number of deficit school districts had been reduced by half. From a one-time high of more than 40 districts, today the state projects just 11 – out of nearly 900 – troubled districts, and 10 of those are shrinking their deficits.

We also changed Michigan’s outdated teacher tenure standards to reward effectiveness in the classroom, rather than seniority, and we set basic guidelines for schools to use in evaluating all their educators: superintendents, principals and teachers.

Finally, we’ve created more opportunities for parents to “vote with their feet” and make educational choices that best meet their children’s needs – whether it’s their neighborhood school, a charter school, dual high school-college enrollment, early college, homeschooling, or a shared time arrangement that combines some of these options.

But there is more to do.

A bill is pending to grade schools A-F based on the results they achieve for students. This isn’t a new idea. Other states do it, with success, and groups like the Michigan Association of School Administrators (MASA), West Michigan Talent Triangle (WMTT), Education Trust Midwest (ETM) and others have been weighing in on it for years. It’s time to get this done for students and parents.

Looking ahead, teacher preparation looms large on the horizon. Colleges of education at our public universities must overhaul the way they ready their graduates to lead K-12 classrooms. It’s fundamentally unfair to put someone in front of a room of children and expect him to, for example, teach them how to read when he hasn’t been properly trained to do so. And why should the state spend valuable taxpayer dollars retraining teachers in literacy or other pedagogic expertise when our public universities are already paid to do it? It’s really a failure of our higher education system, but K-12 schools are bearing the burden.

Generic photo of students inside a computer lab at Madison Elementary School for a story on the MSTEP test results, which are coming out in late August. Madison Heights, Mi. August 10, 2017.

The incoming governor and legislature can look forward to grappling with these and other daunting challenges facing our schools.

Promisingly, a new partnership of business, education and philanthropic leaders, called Launch Michigan, is already working to achieve that elusive consensus and build on the work that’s been done.

Led by Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders of Michigan, Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation, and Paula Herbart of the Michigan Education Association, this partnership aims to find workable solutions that will result in a “strong, thriving public education system [that] is the cornerstone of successful kids, prosperous communities, and a strong economy.”

For all of Michigan’s sake, but especially our kids’, let’s hope they succeed.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, is the chair of the Senate Education Committee.