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Published: Friday, 4/29/2011

Mich. governor serves up sweeping school reform

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- What is perhaps most startling about Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's sweeping school reform proposal is how complete and accurate an indictment it is of the state's system of education.

Anyone who thinks this is a typical, mean-spirited, reactionary conservative plan hasn't read it. Much of it sounds like something written by the nation's most progressive education experts -- in collaboration with forward-looking business leaders.

"Our education system must position our children to compete globally in a knowledge-based economy," the governor says, calling for a massive reshaping "so that all children learn at high levels and are fully prepared to enter the work force or attend college."

Nobody doubts that is true -- nor that the present system is spending billions and failing many students. Yet the big question is whether the governor and the Legislature are at all realistic about the money needed to get the job done.

The 52-year-old governor, a public school whiz kid himself in the 1960s and '70s, unveiled his reforms while at the same time pushing a massive cut in state per-pupil spending. He's also angered teachers by attempting to force them to pay a greater proportion of their health-care costs.

Though it is clear there are administrative savings that could be realized, how -- and why -- the former venture capitalist and computer executive thinks he can get better results while spending substantially less on education is not clear.

Michigan's conventional system of public education isn't getting the job done, as everything from test scores to graduation rates increasingly shows, year after year.

Within moments after he began speaking this week at the offices of United Way in Detroit, the governor took on issues that have long been dear to educational reformers' hearts.

Mr. Snyder made it clear he is deeply concerned about education from birth to kindergarten, an issue that progressive thinkers have long called key to any serious reform.

He calls for new, tough anti-bullying standards. He calls for flexibility and abandoning the old, "one size fits all" concept of education, with all students in the same classroom trying to follow the same curriculum in the same way.

He said succinctly: "A grammar school education once suited the agrarian age, and a high school education suited the assembly line age. A high-quality post-secondary education is needed for the technology age."

The governor has a comprehensive set of bold proposals to produce teachers who teach and students who learn. He calls for vast increases, where necessary, in charter schools, and revamping the way teacher tenure works.

The governor, a Battle Creek native who earned three degrees from the University of Michigan before his 24th birthday, also seeks "performance-based" systems of accountability for teachers. He wants a system of merit pay and for changes to make it far easier to get rid of incompetent or ineffective teachers, regardless of seniority.

These are all proposals bound to be fiercely opposed by unions and other entrenched interests. Yet after his special message on education -- which was, significantly and deliberately, delivered in Detroit -- his critics seemed stunned.

Predictably, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association said that "countless studies have shown" that merit pay doesn't work. State Rep. Lisa Brown (D., West Bloomfield), the ranking minority member of the House education committee, said the governor is out to "devastate our schools." But she and other Democrats kept their criticism centered on previously announced budget cuts.

Independent analysts seemed far more positive. Tom Watkins, an education and business consultant, was state superintendent of public instruction early in the administration of Mr. Snyder's predecessor, Jennifer Granholm.

He was eventually pushed out of office, in part for urging change. Before the governor spoke, Mr. Watkins, a moderate Democrat, was skeptical. He said: "Well, we will have to see just how bold he will be." The status quo, he emphasized, "will not prepare our kids for the hyper-competitive technological world."

But would the governor really come out for change? "His ideas should be measured against this," Mr. Watkins said. "Do [they] support teaching, learning, and children, or [do they] continue the focus on power, control, politics, and adults?"

Yet after the speech, Mr. Watkins was ebullient.

"Governor Snyder sent a shot across the bow of the protectors of the education status quo today. He declared the system broken and presented a vision to transform it. Most importantly, he demonstrated that rhetoric from Lansing never educated a single child."

But what, he was asked, about the money?

In the past, many educators have been bitter about being asked to accomplish goals with little or no new resources, as with the famous unfunded mandates of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program.

The former superintendent knows that's an issue, but added that these days, he spends a lot of time in China, where the proverb is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

"That issue [money] will always be there, anytime you try to change anything," Mr. Watkins said, adding with a laugh: "The only human who likes change is an infant."

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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