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Opinion: Seeking answers to improve Michigan’s schools

Nolan Finley and Ingrid Jacques

For both of us, education has been our preoccupation in pushing for policies that will make Michigan a better place to live.

We’ve watched three consecutive governors declare education as their priority. We’ve weighed their initiatives to change school governance and the classroom experience, to hold teachers and school districts accountable, to take over local systems and to break out schools for special attention.

Over nearly 20 years, Michigan has set lofty five- and 10-year goals for matching the performance of the nation’s best achieving states. Plan after plan has been rolled out for getting there.

Fixing Michigan's schools: Education crisis by the numbers

And yet as we begin another school year, we are actually further behind based on student test scores than we were two decades ago, in terms of our standing in the nation.

Why is education such a vexing problem for Michigan? Why can’t we fix our schools?

Some say the answers to those questions lie in funding, that we are too stingy, that we don’t place a priority on educating our children. Others note that Michigan is a top spending state on a per-pupil basis, and say the core problem is a hide-bound education establishment that is under the influence of the teacher unions.

We have our own opinions, tending to think Michigan lacks the political will to develop an urgent and cohesive response to this growing crisis. And its bifurcated system of governing schools, with both the governor and an independent state school board pulling the levers, makes it tougher to unite all parties behind a unified strategy for school improvement.

But we want to hear from other voices, from the leading education experts and policymakers, not just in Michigan but nationally.

That’s why we asked veteran education reformer Doug Ross to curate an ongoing series of commentaries from the brightest voices in the education field. Their opinions, both the ones we agree with and those we question, will appear on these pages throughout the school year.

We’ll supplement their views with our own editorials and columns advocating for the ideas we feel are most viable. And we will be traveling to those places that are getting education, or at least specific pieces of it, right.

We are encouraged that so many education advocates, including the Education Trust-Midwest, Business Leaders for Michigan, and Michigan Future, have either offered or are working on their own plans.

And we are particularly hopeful for the proposals submitted by Gov. Rick Snyder’s education commission, and will be working to build support for those we believe can have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time.

What we are trying to do is gin up a sense of urgency amongst the people of Michigan, who, due to their complacency in accepting mediocre schools, contribute to the reality that the rest of the nation is passing us by.

Along with the experts, we’d like to hear from you, from teachers, parents, employers and others with a stake in the education system — and doesn’t that include everybody?

Write us. And please give some attention to the viewpoints we will be presenting as part of this “Fixing Michigan’s Schools” series. Then, stand up and make your voice heard on behalf of the solutions you think will work.

Unless we demand a better return for the dollars we invest in our schools, our children will continue to receive a second-rate education and Michigan will become a backwater of the knowledge and skills-based economy.

An ongoing series

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