Opinion: Benton Harbor is ground zero for education reform

Tom Watkins
Dark skies loom above Benton Harbor High School. Citing the district’s poor finances and weak academic performance, the governor's office said it wants the board to close the high school as part of a broader plan to improve local K-8 education.

The recent news that Benton Harbor school board and residents said they want no part of a tentative agreement that would have staved off the closing of its high school should be a clarion call to address the overall educational crisis facing our state.

More:Benton Harbor school board rejects plan to save schools

How Michigan’s leaders address the educational and moral crisis in Benton Harbor will impact us all. 

The financial and academic performance of far too many of the students attending the Benton Harbor school district is unacceptable, and, to date, so is the state of Michigan’s response to this fact.

A child without a quality education today is an adult without much of a future tomorrow. 

The children we fail to educate do not disappear, but rather return to us in our places of business as potential customers or employees — or perhaps with more nefarious ideas in mind. It is our moral responsibility — and it's in our best interest — to address the educational crisis across Michigan.  

We need to stop singling out the Benton Harbor community and reflect on the moral imperative to assure we provide a quality education to young people who have been underserved and disenfranchised for far too long. 

We need to demand state leaders take responsibility for providing an education to all students that prepares them for their future, readying them to collaborate and compete in an tech- and data-driven environment.

The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address a structural educational problem for decades. 

I foreshadowed many of these issues in a report I wrote while serving as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools in 2004: Structural Funding Problems Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century.

If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally flawed and follows Stein’s economic rule: “Things that can’t go on forever — won’t."

The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address a structural educational problem for decades, Watkins says.

It will take a systematic cure to address the Benton Harbor crisis. We need to ask, “Are we going to prepare all of our students for their future?" and, "How do we create a rational system to do so?”

The Michigan Legislature needs to step up to the plate, listen to educators and invest in proven, evidence-based and data-driven approaches to improving education for our students. Unless we are serious about changing the trajectory of education in Michigan, we will sink into an economic backwater.

Make no mistake — improving education is key to what ails our state and nation. 

Michigan needs the new educational investments proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and widely supported by business leaders. Workforce preparation — from the cradle to the grave — is what is needed if we want to remain relevant as a state.  

At perhaps no time in the past three decades has there been as much potential for alignment with educators, teachers unions, governor and state legislature, the State Board of Education and the business community to develop a shared vision and common agenda that assures educational support and reform in Michigan.

Are we going to fix the structural problems facing Michigan schools, or continue to look away?

Without a systemic fix, the tragedy of failing the students of Benton Harbor is coming to a community near you.

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools, 2001-05. He is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China.