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Opinion | Stop throwing more cash at Michigan schools, reform them instead

If Michigan was just discovered and we had 1.4 million K-12 students to educate and an annual budget of $20 billion, no one in their right mind would recreate the non-aligned, unaccountable operational structure which is not meeting the academic needs of our children and is an economic anchor on our state. Yet we continue to prop it up.

Sheila A. Alles and Tom Watkins
Sheila A. Alles, a former classroom teacher, was interim state superintendent of public instruction and chief deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education from 2017-2021. Tom Watkins was state superintendent of schools from 2001-2005. (Courtesy photo)

Michigan’s governor and legislators have one last chance to fix our dysfunctional public schools that have been failing to educate far too many of our children going back a decade or two.  

The system today is more focused on the power, control and ideology of adults and not on TLC: teaching, learning and children. 

Idealogues and anti-government profiteers are sitting back waiting for those in Lansing that support the values and the underpinnings of our democracy, our public schools, to spend more and produce less. They are devising plans now to further privatize and make profitable public education in the future because the Democrats had unprecedented resources and controlled all levers of power and did not make the necessary changes to prepare our students for their future and not our past. 

Democrats are in charge today in Lansing. The majority of the members of the statewide elected board of education are Democrats. The legislative committees on education policy and budget are chaired by Democrats and, for the first time in Michigan’s history, all of them are teachers by professional background. 

They collectively have a generational opportunity to reform public education that will be as consequential and produce lasting results for students as the bold Proposal A did to change the funding of our schools.

When it comes to public education in Michigan, Democrats need to stop  measuring how much they “love public education” by how much of the taxpayers money they spend. It is past time we measure academic outcomes. 

Currently we are failing to get an adequate return on our investment of almost $20 billion this year for K-12 public education and historic increases proposed for next year’s budget.  

We call on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Democratic leadership in the Legislature to take bold action by redesigning the structures of public education, making it more aligned and holding leaders accountable to produce academic results that will demonstrate progress for our children. 

Other states have done it and we should learn from them and catapult Michigan into being the brain bank of the world, where everyone wants to come for deposits and withdrawals. 

We have offered examples of some bold changes in two recently published op-eds:

  • First and foremost, listen to parents and teachers 
  • Invest in universal Pre-K for all four-year-olds 
  • Eliminate/restructure the senior year of high school
  • Make RESA/ISD superintendents accountable to the state superintendent of schools
  • Use technology and AI to accelerate learning
  • Eliminate snow days
  • Reduce local control and enhance accountability

There is a mountain of evidence that indicates our schools are not producing the results necessary while spending tens of billions annually. Spending more money in the same way is not going to produce the results we desperately need. 

We propose the following additional actions as first steps in creating a more systematically responsive, aligned and accountable public education system:

  • Restructure and realign leadership within the state beginning with the governor followed by the state Legislature, state superintendent of schools, ISD/RESA superintendents and local district superintendents so a vertically aligned accountable system exists in PK-12 education and hold leaders accountable for improving student outcomes.
  • Provide the governor with the authority to appoint the state superintendent of schools and make him/her accountable to the governor.
  • Create a statewide public education human resources department which would eliminate time, effort and costs to negotiate individual district contracts and provide a universal statewide salary contract with regional differences based on appropriate regional cost of living metrics. An equitable salary and benefits schedule across the state would reduce the number of teachers who move from one district to another for a higher wage and better benefits.  
  • Expand on the existing campaign, MI Future Educator Fellowship, to attract high school students to the colleges of education to include an interest-free repayment program for graduates who stay in Michigan and teach in our public schools.
  • Create one retirement system for staff who work at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and employees who work in public education. Currently anyone working in public education who would like to work in the MDE must either pause their current retirement contribution or retire in Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System  (MPSERS). This change in retirement systems would draw more people to apply for positions within the MDE and have more experienced public school staff working in the department, which would be beneficial to both public schools and the MDE.

A review of structures, practices and policies that currently exist in states and provinces that are highly functional with high performing student outcomes would provide a benchmark for improvement. Compare those elements to Michigan’s current education system, identify the similarities and differences, recognize the changes that need to be made to more align our education system to those states and provinces and create a plan to implement them.

The recently released report from Business Leaders of Michigan, “Compete to Win: Michigan’s Path to Top 10”, compares Michigan’s education system to other states and compares our student achievement to national rankings. Also included is a list of recommendations to transform our K-12 education system so we can “do better by our kids.”  

We concur with many of the recommendations included in this framework and support its opinion that public education in Michigan “has not kept up with the shifting needs of the 21st century economy.”

Schools are not producing results and no one is held accountable. This needs to change or Michigan will continue to fail its children.

Governor and legislators: You have the opportunity to save public education, the bedrock of our democracy. Don’t be timid. Michigan needs courageous action or another generation of children will be squandered.  

Please act as if our collective future is dependent on your actions. Because it is. 

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