Jacques: Wrong way to 'launch' school reform

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, received a letter last week from a group called Launch Michigan, urging him to ignore two bills that had recently arrived in his Education Committee.

Given it’s lame duck and there are many bills moving quickly, many advocacy organizations are seeking to sway lawmakers.

But this letter stands out.

The Detroit News is publishing a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools.

Launch Michigan formed in June, and is a coalition of about 30 business, philanthropic, union and school leaders. They came together at the behest of Business Leaders for Michigan to lead an effort to call attention to the state’s floundering public schools — and to identify the most impactful reforms.

That’s a fine mission, and Michigan’s schools need all the help they can get.

Yet in this case, Launch Michigan is pushing Pavlov to ignore legislation that would simply offer school districts more flexibility in how they deliver education. The bills would authorize innovative schools districts, and allow districts to implement “competency-based learning,” which means students are measured on what they master, rather than time spent in their seats.

Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the Education Reform Committee, introduced the bills in September after years of hearing from local superintendents who are frustrated with rules and constraints that make such innovation difficult.

The innovative schools legislation is voluntary for districts, and administrators must first get permission from the state superintendent before embarking on a new program. So there’s still plenty of state oversight.

Launch Michigan members, however, objected, writing: “Without due time for stakeholders in our education system to analyze and weigh the impacts of proposed changes, it is not in the best interest of Michigan’s students to adopt such legislation during the short lame duck session.”

That’s disappointing, especially considering business leaders signed their names to this letter. The business community should understand the value of innovation and creative thinking, whether in business or education. 

In a statement, BLM said: “We haven’t had ample time to review and understand the impact of innovative districts as a statewide policy.”

Fair enough.

But there was always a concern in bringing such a diverse group together. Paula Herbart, the president of the Michigan Education Association, co-chairs the coalition along with Doug Rothwell, president of BLM. Earlier this month, the MEA sent its lame-duck wishlist to the other Launch members.

Earlier this month, the MEA sent its lame duck wishlist to the other Launch members. The union opposed the innovative schools bills. Now, they all do.

Teachers unions already have a powerful lobbying voice in Lansing. School reform here would benefit greatly from strong business support.

Launch Michigan may need to rethink its strategy if it aspires to lead meaningful change.