Opinion: Education reform needs less talk, more action

Ken Whipple

At this year's Mackinac Policy Conference many inspiring speeches from leaders called for fixing the terrible state of K-12 education here in Michigan.

The best sound bites came from Jeb Bush, who said, "Think big and bold, fund the reform, reward success, and raise the bar whenever you can." Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen's concluding charge urged leaders to "Get stuff done," which hasn't exactly been a hallmark of past Mackinac sessions.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks about Florida's successful educational programs at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference Thursday at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.

Over the last five years, we have realized that education in Michigan is bad and getting worse compared with other states and countries. Several distinguished study groups have been formed, including the blue ribbon group, set up by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, and Launch Michigan, which was formed last year by Business Leaders for Michigan.

So how come, with all that knowledge and all that brain power, we’re not making much, if any, progress? Easy. Leadership.

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy teacher Shauntay Frazier adjusts the desks in her classroom.

Educational expertise and parent input are crucial to doing the big things, but nothing will happen without a tough-minded leader, and a dedicated and funded full-time group focused entirely on education.

Once we have a strong leader, we need to prioritize the following: teachers, equitable funding, governance and charter schools.

If we pursue these four relentlessly with focused leadership, Michigan could be a top 10 state in a decade or so.

Concerning teachers, we should take Jeb’s advice and "think big." We are not getting enough smart kids who want to go to school to be teachers. Here we can take a leaf from the wonderful project just getting started at Marygrove College where they are training the teachers of tomorrow in a real school. Great stuff, but we need to take it to scale.

We need to incentivize smart kids who might yearn to be teachers but can’t see the rewards. We need to make college costs easier; we need to pay beginning teachers more, especially in low-income cities like Detroit; and we need to create ladders for their promotional success. We need formal mentoring and internship programs. None of it is rocket science, but it takes doing and a tough-minded leader.

We need to change the structure of school funding and acknowledge the fact that poor kids need more education money than rich kids. We need to adopt Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s refrain that facilities count. Detroit’s half-billion dollar need for facilities isn’t only Detroit‘s issue. It’s an issue for all of us.

On governance, there are underlying issues with the State Board of Education. In short, the board needs to report to the governor, and its members need to be at least partially appointed by the governor instead of elected. There are only six other states that look like Michigan, and they are not the leading education states. 

Other areas of governance include the fact that we certainly don’t need 600 school districts in Michigan. There are real savings possible here.

And finally, charter schools. We have many excellent charter schools in our state. We also have way too many lousy ones. We need to adopt the practice of the best states, where the chief education officer, reporting to the governor, authorizes and oversees charter schools.

It would be easy to go on in length and depth, but the most important issue here, again, is leadership. Why not have a group of business leaders, possibly the Business Leaders for Michigan, set up and fund a separate group to focus on these four items with laser-like energy?

Recent studies show that parents favor strong action on education, even if it costs them more. They would even give it a higher priority than roads.

Our kids are getting a day older every day and falling farther behind on the big stuff they need for happy lives. Massachusetts and other states are eating our lunch. This is urgent. 

Ken Whipple chairs the Michigan Achieves leadership council and is former CEO of CMS Energy.