Finley: Engler’s mind never far from Michigan

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island -- It's Throwback Saturday as John Engler strolls through the dining room of the Grand Hotel.

"Great speech, governor." "You look good, John." "Good to have you back, governor."

Engler, Michigan's only modern-age three full-term governor and perhaps its most impactful one, was on familiar turf as a he delivered the breakfast address to the state Republican Leadership Conference here.

He left the state for big jobs in Washington, D.C., when he left office 15 years ago, though he considers himself a part-time resident of the state. Engler and wife Michelle have a summer home on a lake near Lansing that they return to "not nearly enough."

Recently retired as head of the prestigious Business Roundtable, Engler's focus now is more on national politics and policy. But you don't have to talk with him very long to be certain his thoughts are never far away from his home state, where he served for 20 years in the state Legislature before being elected governor in 1990.

Asked what the leaders who have succeeded him have done with his legacy, Engler answers:

"We went into a swoon for awhile, but Gov. Snyder has brought it back. The current lineup is very strong in terms of the state. The overall results are reflecting that. The dramatic reduction of the unemployment rate is a reflection of that. Like a lot of places, we still have a workforce participation problem. We still have people who need to be encouraged to come back into the workforce. There's no question that the companies who are making location decisions today are starting with the question of, 'what about the workforce'?

"That comes before the tax environment. You can give someone an unlimited bundle of (incentives) and if the workforce isn't there they can't come."

Engler forecast the state's coming education crisis as governor, and tried to get ahead of it with a series of reforms that included opening the door for charter schools and interceding in the Detroit Public Schools. He remains frustrated with the performance of Michigan schools, and getting education right continues to preoccupy him.

"We still have a leadership challenge," he says. "We need to get rid of the elected state school board and have the governor appoint the superintendent. At the local level, in Detroit, the schools need to be as they are in many places, the responsibility of the mayor."

Inside the classroom, Engler says there's only one answer to improving performance, and that's to improve reading skills.

"The obsession that I have is that we ought to start by making sure every kid can read," he says. "When we have a system today that nationally only teaches one in three to read, and in Michigan is slightly below the national average and cities like Detroit are barely teaching anybody, that ought to be a source of deep embarrassment. Our education system, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, ought to at least be organized in a way that we can teach kids to read.

"I don't believe there's any kid, given four years in a school that is organized properly and the teachers are trained, couldn't learn to read, regardless of the home situation."

Beyond that, Engler says the education system has made a mistake in stressing college for everyone, and downplaying skilled trades, and urges community colleges to get more deeply involved in preparing school children to step into those jobs when they graduate. He also advocates education savings accounts that would contain the state’s annual foundation grant for each child, which could be used in any school parents choose, with any excess at graduation available to pay for college tuition or career training.

While he's a big fan of current Gov. Rick Snyder, Engler says he has not has much contact with him, and does not serve as an informal adviser.

"He's got his own team he's relied on." Engler says. "I've tried to make sure that I don't interfere. He's the governor, and I'm not."

Engler, who served as Senate majority leader, remains a policy wonk.

"Policy is how you make change in America," he says. "You have to think about it, and what will work."

The former governor intends to return to Michigan eventually as a more consistent part-time resident.

"We emotionally never left," he says. He won't actively engage in politics, he says, "But given my background and experience, perhaps I can be helpful."

Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The Detroit News. Listen to “The Nolan Finley Show” weekday mornings from 7-9 on Superstation 910 AM.