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Howes: Michigan is in an education crisis

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Public education in Michigan is facing a crisis ever bit as threatening to its future as the bankruptcies of Detroit and two of its automakers.

And remedies to fix the deepening problems may prove even more difficult.

Teachers and the educational establishment know it. Study after study shows it. Parents who pay attention may suspect it. Business leaders dread it, alarmed at the implications for their future talent pool.

Even worse: insiders say Michigan’s chronic under-achievement in K-12 education is a complicated, years-long crisis too many don’t know about.

Where have they been? From wealthy districts in Oakland County to urban ones in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, educational attainment across Michigan’s 550 districts keeps lagging rival states. To prove the point, Governor Gretchen Whitmer flashed a slide at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference this week that should shock everyone: on literacy, Michigan is ranked dead last in the nation. 50th.

It’s an embarrassment the state’s kids do not deserve. As Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen put it, quote: “It’s time for adults to move. We all allow this to happen. We gotta’ get something else done.”

A coalition of business leaders, philanthropists, teachers’ unions and civic groups calling itself Launch Michigan is beginning to answer the delusion with fact. Consumers Energy CEO Pattie Poppe says, “the data is so overwhelmingly clear that we just can’t overlook it.”

But we are. This crisis hiding in plain sight is a challenge to a broad cross-section of leadership that transcends partisan, economic and geographic boundaries. Unlike the auto bankruptcies or Detroit’s Chapter 9 filing, imminent financial collapse won’t force reform in Michigan's diffuse K-12 system.

Consensus, however, may. Consensus is [that] the problem is real, that no single constituency is at fault, and that using partisan advantage in the governor's office or the Legislature to score short-term political points is a loser’s game. In a divided state, long-term change is more likely to be driven by the kind of non-partisan consensus that helped realize the reinvention of Detroit.

More than fixing "the damn roads," or cutting auto insurance rates, reforming K-12 education is perhaps the most critical, long-term policy challenge facing Republicans and Democrats, labor and business, parents and students who may think Michigan is keeping pace.

It is not. Period.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Blame the work-a-day culture that under-values education. Blame the patchwork of districts that isolates problems instead of fixing them. Blame politicized fights in Lansing over school funding, charter schools and unions. Blame the parents who don’t maintain an environment at home that encourages education.

This is not sustainable, people. And the only way it changes is if a Democratic governor, a Republican Legislature, business, labor and philanthropy coalesce around an agenda focused on one thing: making the hard changes to get better … and sticking with them through electoral cycles, whoever is in charge.

Change won’t come overnight. But it won’t come at all if they don’t get started. Now.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. 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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