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Published: Friday, 3/19/2010

Still time for Michigan governor to help schools

DETROIT - The poor, philosophers used to say, will always be with us. Michigan has two problems that have gotten worse, and seem unlikely to disappear anytime soon: the plight of the Detroit public schools and the state's enduring financial crisis.

Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager who runs the schools, is closing more than 40 of them at the end of this school year, and more in years to come. The schools have lost half their enrollment in the past seven years, their record for educating students is abysmal, and the district has huge financial problems.

Though nobody disputes any of that, many residents are angry that these decisions are being made by a state-appointed outsider. "Whatever happened to local control of our own schools?" said one woman who demonstrated against the cuts.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm offered her solution to the $2 billion state budget deficit more than a month ago: Extend the state sales tax to most services, and cut the overall rate from 6 to 5.5 percent. The money raised would be used to prevent further cuts to education.

After that is accomplished, it would be used to phase out a hated surcharge that lawmakers put on the Michigan Business Tax three years ago, during an earlier budget crisis.

But the Legislature has largely ignored her plan. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop has indicated he will block any plan that proposes to raise revenues.

The governor said that if Michigan's lawmakers don't have the courage to vote on her proposal, they should put it on the November ballot and let voters decide.

You can expect to hear more about the schools and the state funding crisis. But here's a different perspective: Outraged Detroit parents and the governor are looking at their problems in the wrong way.

First, the issue of "local control" of schools goes back to pioneer days, when education was strictly a local responsibility. Communities figured out how much they wanted to tax themselves and what kind of education they could afford.

That changed drastically when Michigan adopted Proposal A in 1994. Now most education funding comes from the state.

The state is required to appoint emergency financial managers for cities and school districts that are not living up to their basic fiscal responsibilities, which was the case in Detroit. The argument can be made that the welfare of all children is a state responsibility, especially since the Detroit Public Schools' leadership has failed to manage its money, properly educate students, or keep them in school long enough to graduate.

As for the governor's sales tax proposal: Regardless of its merits, she is missing a big step before she asks voters to support her plan. She has failed to explain why she feels it is urgently necessary to raise taxes.

The governor may suffer from the Lansing version of Inside-the-Beltway Disease. Most of the people she deals with every day understand how state finances work. Most voters don't, not because they are stupid, but because they spend their time trying to make a living, find a job, and raise their kids, and worrying about whether to get the roof fixed.

Michigan citizens don't want to pay more taxes if they don't have to. They also know, however, that they want their kids to have a quality education, and they want roads fixed.

The governor is supposed to be a superb communicator, and she has shown her ability to connect with voters when she has campaigned for office. But she has often shied away from trying to persuade them to support painful decisions.

So here's a suggestion: When President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to sell Americans on a difficult decision, he explained it in one of his famous fireside chats. Governor Granholm should do the same on television.

She should ask for a half-hour to explain the budget crisis to citizens, relate how we got into this mess, and explain her rationale for extending the sales tax. She should tell voters what she expects it will cost them and what they can expect to get from it.

That might not work. There is no guarantee that lawmakers can be pressured into putting the tax proposal on the ballot. Nor is it certain that if they do, voters will support it.

But leaders need to connect with people and lead. Governor Granholm has the ability to get our attention for another nine months, after which, thanks to term limits, she is gone forever.

What is she waiting for?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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