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Amazon to Michigan: Fix your schools!

Sometimes you learn more from a bucket of cold water in the face than a warm blanket over your back.

Last week, Amazon announced it turned down Detroit's bid to be a finalist city for its second headquarters. The big reason: Our state lacks the depth and quality of human talent they need.

For Michiganders who have kids in school or looking for a good job or hoping to get into a good college, this is comes as no surprise.

Business Leaders for Michigan, which has been benchmarking Michigan's standing for years, ranks us 29th in the nation for the percentage of high school graduates who are regarded as college or career ready, 32nd for the percentage of the workforce with technical training, and 30th in overall educational attainment. The percentage of people in the Michigan workforce with a post-high school degree is far less than prosperous states like Massachusetts or Minnesota.

Related 2018 Michigan education facts

This is bad enough, but test scores over recent years show Michigan K-12 students are getting worse relative to other states.

Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes nailed it in his Friday column: "Michigan can't credibly attract 21st-Century talent with some of the worst educational performance in the country. It's that simple: Michigan is growing dumber as would-be competitors get smarter and better prepared to prosper in the global knowledge economy."

What needs to be done is simple: As Howes puts it, use the news "as a wake-up call, a litmus test for this year's campaigns for governor and the state legislature."

So what's occupying our far-sighted lawmakers in Lansing these days? In both the Senate and, especially, the House, it's to compete in how much to cut state taxes in the wake of the new national tax bill. Maybe ‒ and sadly ‒ this is good politics. But it's terrible governance.

Related: Compared with other states, Michigan's tax burden is low - and getting lower

According to the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, a nonprofit think tank located in Ann Arbor, the better the post high-school skills, the more likely school leavers are to get high-wage jobs. The average percentage of the national workforce with a post-high school degree is 44.8, according to the Lumina Foundation. The comparable Michigan number is 43.4, by no means at the bottom of the barrel, but certainly well below the 50.1 percent for Illinois, a neighboring competitive state.

And the issue isn't just spending more money, regardless of what some say in Lansing. According to Business Leaders for Michigan, we need to improve our K-12 and job training systems and make college education more affordable. The school system "needs more accountability, a respite from constant changes to standards and assessments, more support for teachers and actions that direct more funding to the classroom."

None of this is rocket science. Nor is it necessarily politically unpopular.

More 2018 Michigan education facts

What's mystifying is that the political leadership of Michigan (excepting Gov. Snyder [more]) seems to have no interest whatsoever in doing anything serious about our schools. This despite all kinds of evidence that public concern about deteriorating performance of our schools ranks at the top of a list of things that need doing. You would think with this being an election year, most lawmakers facing the voters would pay more attention. But they aren’t. Most parts of the political system seem content with finger-pointing and remain largely unwilling to come together to make serious school improvement the key issue in the forthcoming statewide campaign.

There are lots of rationalizations: I can't do anything to change the system.  Better schools cost money, and the voters won't like that. People have been complaining about schools for years, and that doesn't seem to have changed anything. We're actually doing pretty well, so what's the fuss?

This isn't a Republican issue, or a Democratic one. It's a Michigan issue, one that affects directly all of us and our children and grandchildren. In fact, when it comes to our futures, it may be the most important issue of all.

Related: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change

What's it take to build a fire under every candidate on this November's ballot?

Each of us needs to grab anyone running for governor or state legislature who comes to our door asking for our vote and ask, "How, exactly, are you going to fix our disgraceful school performance?" If that were to happen, my guess is that the political system might, just might, start getting the message.

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