John Austin is former president of the Michigan State Board of Education
Back to school should be a joyous time for children and their families, but today in Michigan the excitement of a new school year combines with uncertainty about what our kids will experience inside the schoolhouse door. Once the envy of the nation, Michigan’s public education system is hurting, and so are our children. Michigan today ranks 35th in the nation in fourth-grade reading, 33rd in eighth-grade math. Our African-American fourth graders have the lowest reading scores in the country. Other states now claim leadership in education – states who once looked to Michigan for inspiration. The wheels have truly come off.
The next governor faces many challenges – from collapsing water mains to crumbling roads. Less visible but more damaging than yawning potholes are the diminished life chances and opportunities for Michigan’s schoolchildren. Tires can be replaced. There is no replacing years of lost learning.
Caring deeply about education and having spent a large part of my career working to make it better – including 16 years of service on the Michigan State Board of Education-—I am saddened to tears by the damage done to the life chances of so many Michigan young people. But I am determined that we call the question, now, of whether we will reverse course.
Michigan is at a moment of decision about the direction of public education. Studies detailing what we need to do to fix our learning system have been piling up for years-- all saying more or less the same thing.
A broad, unprecedented coalition of stakeholders have joined together to insist that education improvement is central to the state’s future, our economy, and must be attended to by the next governor and Legislature.
All eyes are now on the two major-party candidates for governor, to see if they have solid plans and commitment to float the sinking ship.
On the Republican side, Bill Schuette has promised to make education a priority, focused on early reading. His 10-point plan for literacy calls for creation of a new cabinet-level Michigan literacy director; incentive funding rewarding schools that prioritize early-learning; challenging colleges and universities, business and philanthropy to partner to provide specialized reading coaches and support services in schools. He has vowed to remove “red tape” so teachers can focus on teaching and wants to give local schools more flexibility in how they use state funding.
Schutte has also promised a tax cut of more than $800 million. I am not sure the combination will work. Years of our state exhorting children to learn and teachers to teach better, while reducing support for our educators to be able to deliver the goods in the classroom, is a big part of what got us into the sorry situation we are now.
And Schuette sent a particularly worrisome message by choosing Lisa Posthumous Lyons as his running mate, a signal that he was perhaps eager to accelerate the Betsy DeVos agenda that has been working to dismantle the traditional public education system. As House Education Committee Chair in the Michigan Legislature, Lyons was the energetic agent of DeVos-demanded legislation that lifted the “smart caps” the State Board had put on cyber and charter schools (those school operators who delivered quality education could open more schools; bad operators could not) essentially eliminating any quality control on charter and cyber school proliferation.
Under the banner of school choice the DeVos-Lyons agenda has successfully worked to build up a parallel for-profit, non-unionized, education universe, with no concern over the fact that most of the new schools delivered worse, not better education. The result has been poor learning outcomes for many students executing their “choice,” while leaving children in traditional public schools, who often face greater learning obstacles, with fewer resources and less teacher help and support, resulting in diminished learning and life opportunities for those students as well.
Gretchen Whitmer’s plan includes more of the elements that state education and business leaders say are needed in any school improvement plan and what is clearly working in other states that today outperform Michigan.
Universal early childhood education. Modernizing our shopworn Proposal A funding model to provide more help and resources where children have the greatest learning needs, so everyone reaches the same high expectations bar. Meaningful support and training for teachers, including higher pay. And when the workplace of today and tomorrow demands greater skills and ongoing education past high school, Whitmer has also proposed a Michigan Opportunity Scholarship to put a postsecondary credential, degree or employer-valued certification within financial reach of everyone.
Michiganders care deeply about public education. They overwhelmingly favor providing our schools and educators the support they need to do their job. They will have something important to say about it at the polls Nov. 6.