Opinion: Michigan was OK with lousy education before COVID-19 pandemic, so what now?

Ken Whipple

There’s no doubt that we are OK with lousy schools in Michigan. For the last 20 years at least our kids’ performance in subjects like math and reading has declined relative to kids in other states. In large cities, with lots of poor kids and Black kids, our performance has been dismal for decades.

We’ve often said to ourselves that all kids deserve a decent education. Some states have figured it out. Massachusetts, for example, is as good as most of the high-performing countries in the world. The rest of the country, including bottom-feeder Michigan, gets about a D grade.

So we know what to do. But we haven’t done it. Why? Maybe a lot of reasons, but the most important one is the lack of consistent, long-term leadership.

Maybe our time has finally come, with our super-heightened interest in achieving social justice. There are new efforts appearing in lots of fronts — food, housing, jobs and others.

If we don’t tackle education, it doesn’t matter much how successful we are in the other areas, Whipple writes.

If we don’t seriously tackle education however, it doesn’t matter much how successful we are in the other areas. In Detroit, for example, we are graduating thousands of high school seniors who are reading at grade-school levels. That’s not a recipe for successful, happy lives off the safety net.

We need some short- and long-term actions. But the most critical ingredient is long-term, permanent leadership. That can start with the governor, as it did in a successful education state like Florida under Jeb Bush. But long-term it needs a permanent group funded and led by business leaders — the Massachusetts model.

Let’s talk for a minute about permanence. Even in high-emotion times like the present, good deeds can come and go. A good example, although it’s tough to be critical of really good work, is the heroic effort by Detroit businesses and foundations to raise north of $20 million to give every Detroit public school kid a tablet and internet access. Really good stuff! And when asked, “What about the other 50,000 kids in charter and other schools?,” the answer has been that this is being worked on, too. Couple of weeks for the first batch. That was a couple of months ago, and it likely will happen for the other kids, but not at nearly the same pace.

This is another example of how our sights need to be raised. Even in a post-COVID-19 world, distance learning in some way will be part of the future. Every kid in America needs internet access and a suitable device. If we demand that it can happen, and it can happen now. Things like this could continue with a permanent, non-political leadership group.

Long term, as I said, we know what to work on — more high quality teachers, equitable funding (poor kids need way more than rich kids), better governance (join the successful states with a state board of education that reports to the governor, cut our too-many school districts), and raise the performance of charter schools. (There’s no acceptable answer why the top charter operators refuse to come to Michigan).

Those long-term actions are necessary, and we have to muster the leadership to get going. We don’t need more massive studies. A wonderful study was done under former Gov. Rick Snyder that included most of the items I’ve recommended. Another, called Launch Michigan, was finished last year, under the leadership of Business Leaders for Michigan, with lots of well-qualified participants. What happened with these studies? Zip, zero, nada, nothing. So we either get serious, or we get ready for another 20 years of lousy results and uncertain futures for our kids.

What can we do short-term? Well, for one thing, we can do the remedial work to stop graduating kids who can’t read. There’s a local group called Beyond Basics that has done one-on-one reading tutoring in Detroit schools for nearly 20 years. They can move any kid to grade level or beyond In 14 weeks or less. Their only obstacle is money — for $30 million, they could bring literacy to every DPSCD high school kid over the next three years. The school leaders and teachers would love it, and there’s not a better way to remove quickly a big barrier to our kids’ successful happy lives.

So in the short term or the long term, in the interest of true social justice, how about we agree to not be OK with lousy schools?

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