Opinion | November election critical for future of public education in Michigan

john austin

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.

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 09/27/2018 - 7:35am

Students are not mastering the basics. More money is needed. Vote democrat. Problem solved.

This is a tall tale. Nearly as old as time itself.


Look, if Mr. Austin's argument had any merit, Detroit's Public Schools which receives a disproportionately larger share of government funding would be vastly OUTPERFORMING Public School Districts in neighboring counties.


Spoiler alert: They're not!



Back to the proverbial drawing board, Mr. Austin.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/30/2018 - 11:11am

I agree that this is a plug for democrats who haven't done much at all to improve education when they had a chance. However, as for Detroit, it takes more money to fix a car with a blown engine and transmission than one with a loose hose or belt. Also very little money has gone to buildings which certainly do affect the ability to learn or teach.

Sherry A. Wells
Thu, 09/27/2018 - 8:52am

There is a third alternative. As a candidate for the State Board of Education, who has done her homework for the last 4 years--attending local school board meetings from Detroit to Berkley to Benton Harbor, I am proud of the governor candidate that Bridge did not mention. Jennifer V. Kurland of the Green Party, was elected to the Redford Union School Board, voted its president and now treasurer, was part of turning it around to avoid the emergency manager threat looming over it. For only some of her background. www.kurland4michigan.com/issues

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 9:08am

Do not vote for Schuette

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 9:38am

Begs the question, with 16 years on the board of education, and the dismal outcomes, were and are you part of the problem.

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 7:28pm

As a public service Bridge owes it to the voters of Michigan to show what math and reading scores did (go ahead and include spending as well) under Dr. Austin's term on the B of Ed so his opinion can intelligently weighed!

Jim Becklund
Thu, 09/27/2018 - 10:50am

I understand this is an opinion piece, however, I am sadly disappointed that absolutely nothing was mentioned about third-party candidates. I'm sure the public would be interested in hearing the thoughts of Green Party candidate Jennifer Kurland. I hope you will make a special effort to be inclusive and not just focus on the political duopoly.

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 8:17pm

Much work has been done to study the adequacy of school funding in MI and to determine an amount needed to move our State back toward a leadership position in terms of public education, most recently by the School Finance Research Collaborative. Candidates who don't study the Collaborative's report and support its basic findings and recommendations should be give no consideration in the upcoming elections! Schuette is no friend of public education.

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 10:17pm

Mr. Austin's article is a glaring example of why students are having disappointing results, he talks about education and ignores learning. The reality of the marketplace is that the changing nature of technology and the world will require the individual to continuously be learning. It isn't just the basic skills, it is learning how to learn that is critical and Mr. Austin ignores, not only learning, but he fails to acknowledge that it is the student who learns, that they have a role/responsibilities in their learning. As long as people such as Mr. Austin only focus on what the adults do and what they spend then we will not see any change in the results the students are having.
There are two things that need to be done to change the results, listen to the students that are successful at learning to understand what they are doing to succeed. They will find it is a desire learn, that causes them to sacrifice to learn and study. It is just like any athlete and coach know it is practice and more practice, it is smart practice that builds the skills, with the desire to succeed that creates success in the game.
Second is that the schools/classrooms need to be changed to foster that desire, to facilitate studying, to coach and show students models of academic success. I don't know how increases in student studying, in student desire to learn, will cost more, but I suspect Mr. Austin and others from the established education system would find away.
I am such as strong believer in learning, I was one of those 'poor' low performing students in school that after high school learned how to learn and saw the importance of learning. I took on the responsibility of my role in my learning. My change cost the school nothing extra, the University expected that of all students, maybe that is what K-12 should do.

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 9:29pm

I think we need to take a step back and decrease school funding. Increased funding hasn't worked because culture change is lagging....the lowest performing districts have the largest demographic of Comfortable Generational Poverty where education is not a priority in their lives.

Sun, 09/30/2018 - 8:49am

It's not just about how much money each district gets. It's also about how wisely that money is spent. We need wise leadership in schools that will make sure that the money that we do appoint actually benefits the children who need it. We need committees who research curriculum intelligently and make sure that curriculum gets into the schools and gets used, which means we need teachers trained to use it.