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Commentary

Snyder vs the Legislature on education funding

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Years ago, when we had a governor from one political party and a legislature controlled by the other, we often saw epic battles over spending priorities, otherwise known as the state budget.

Back in pre-term limit days, compromises would eventually be reached, often at meetings of what was called the “quadrant,” the leaders of the house, senate and the governor.

By the time Jennifer Granholm was governor, ideology had replaced institutional memory and common sense, and we went through yearly chaos and two brief government shutdowns. Now, however, you’d think everything should be a piece of cake.

After all, Rick Snyder is a Republican, and his party is in solid control of the legislature. Well, think again. The legislature mostly went along with the governor’s priorities during his first term, largely because he was asking them to do things they wanted to do anyway.

But things are different now.

For one thing, Snyder is a lame duck who was reelected by a narrow margin, often running behind many Republican legislators. Few, if any, owe their elections to him. For another, the current crop of lawmakers is a more deeply ideological bunch than the last. Many couldn’t care less about embarrassing the governor.

We saw that yesterday when a state House education subcommittee flatly refused to fund most of the governor’s education initiatives. Though Snyder is not popular among teachers, most education experts support his major initiatives, including funding targeted to improve third-grade reading levels, and more money for schools especially at risk, as well as for districts, like Detroit’s, that are in extreme financial distress.

The House education committee rejected the governor’s requests for all of those, plus money for adult education and bilingual education.

The subcommittee did earmark slightly more total money than the governor did for education. But they want to just give the money to the individual school districts and let them decide how to use it. Representative Tim Kelly, a Saginaw-area Republican who is the chair, said, “I’m trying to kick out as much money as I can with as few strings as possible.”

In other words, if they want to use it to boost reading skills, fine.

If they want to use the money instead to beef up football, well, presumably they could do that too. This was greeted with dismay by policy experts.

Gilda Jacobs, a former legislator who now runs the Michigan League for Public Policy, called the move “extremely shortsighted.”  She noted that

“Michigan is not reaching anywhere near enough of the working age adults who lack basic skills,” and added, “too many of Michigan’s children can’t read by the end of third grade.”

Third grade reading proficiency is, by the way, an important predictor of future success.  What happened yesterday is not the final education budget. It still has to pass the full House, the Senate will have its own version, and some things may be restored.

But I wonder sometimes if our lawmakers realize that there aren’t any more good paying jobs on the line at Oldsmobile for people who can’t read.

Michigan can either strive for a more educated workforce, or race to the economic bottom. Paying attention to what our lawmakers do about this would be an extremely good idea.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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