Finley and Jacques: Leaders dodge real fixes to education woes
Mackinac Island — Forgive us our skepticism. But we’ve been aboard this boat before, and it’s always sunk prior to reaching shore.
This year’s Detroit Regional Chamber policy conference here was heavily focused on improving Michigan’s dismal education achievement. Education experts talked about the silver bullets of boosting student performance. Panels declared the urgency for addressing the major impediment to Michigan’s economic progress. And an initiative was touted to bring everyone together behind a common education mission.
And none of it was for the first time.
Look back at conference agendas for the past dozen years or so, and education reform dominates. At nearly every conference, attendees have heard great ideas and benefited from a wealth of expertise on the subject of fixing schools. And we’ve seen plenty of “top 10” lists and 10-year timetables for making Michigan a leader in education.
Yet measured against the rest of the nation, Michigan’s achievement levels have actually gotten worse. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer drew gasps from an audience with a chart that ranked Michigan dead last in literacy.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush returned to the conference this year as the primary education speaker, telling attendees how he boosted performance in his state with a set of reforms passed 20 years ago.
Even Bush was a rerun. Six years ago, he spoke to conference goers about the urgency of education reform in turning around the economy. At that time, he hit on many of the same themes he spoke about Thursday — including strong accountability measures and a unshakable commitment to seeing them through.
Michigan has in fact put in place some of the same reforms Florida did. But it’s the “seeing them through” piece that is missing.
For instance, Michigan now has a robust third-grade reading law and an A-F school grading system -- just like Florida. But unlike Florida, the state Department of Education, along with teachers unions, are pushing against those changes.
The same goes for the teacher evaluation system, which took years to put together and was hailed has an excellent model when it passed several years ago. Yet this year, after pressure from unions, the Legislature watered down those evaluations, even before they’d fully taken effect.
Similarly, the state has a fairly robust charter school law, and it has opened other choices for families within the public school realm.
Yet our elected state Board of Education is actively trying to quash those same choices. The board recently voted to hold up the dispersion of a $47 million federal charter school grant — intended to go toward high performing charters that wanted to expand or replicate.
The likelihood that any reforms that come from the Launch Michigan effort detailed on the island will do any better than previous undertakings is slim.
That’s because in Michigan, accountability for education is diffused. This is one of a very few states with bifurcated control of schools. The governor shares authority with the elected state Board of Education but cannot choose those board members nor the state superintendent.
The state board is the major barrier to fixing Michigan schools. But instead of knocking it down, reformers keep trying to go around it.
When Bush became governor of Florida in 1999, he faced a similar system. One of the fist steps he took was to change that structure, and now in Florida the governor appoints the education board.
Until Michigan takes the same step, there’s no point wasting more time and resources on reform initiatives.
That’s not to say Launch Michigan, the broad school reform coalition of business, labor and philanthropic groups that was announced last summer, won’t produce some fine ideas. Some of them may even pass into law.
But we fear this effort will be like many that preceded it, skirting the underlying issues facing schools and ignoring the major barriers that need overturned.
As long as the elected school board remains in place, this latest attempt will fall short of the home run swing Michigan needs.
The need to overhaul governance was one of the top priorities of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, which issued its extensive report in 2017. This was also a broad coalition that took months to reach its set of recommendations.
“At the state level, the governor, Legislature, Michigan Department of Education and Michigan State Board of Education all, to varying degrees, direct state policy,” the report stated.
It went on to recommend voters approve a constitutional amendment that would flip the current framework and give more control to the governor — something that was integral to Florida’s school reform success.
And it’s what Michigan must also do.
Anywhere school reform has worked, there’s been a strong leader pushing that agenda and making sure the focus stays on the interests of the children instead of the interests of the interest groups.
We don’t want to downplay any of the ideas that came up at the conference. But we understand the need for taking bold action, just as Bush so clearly said.
“If you have the chance to raise the bar, do it,” Bush said last week. “Don’t delay.”
The conference missed the opportunity to call on business leaders to do what they could do best: Lead a ballot initiative to get rid of the Board of Education.