I know I’m not alone when I say I’m disgusted with the way our political system is (not) working these days.
What seems to be happening all over the country is that a mixture of highly partisan activists from both parties, passionate ideologues and special interest groups are succeeding in mostly closing off the political process from the views of ordinary citizens. If you’re not part of the Republican or Democratic base, or if you’re not a Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street ideologue, your voice simply won’t be heard.
One way of attacking this system is to pull ordinary people together and actually ask them what they’re thinking. Then you listen hard, take careful notes, amplify their views and bring them into the halls of power. In contrast to what we have now, most political science textbooks call this subversive approach, well, “democracy." Hmm.
That’s the work of the Center for Michigan, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group trying to help reform our political system by holding citizen community conversations inMichigan. (Disclosure: I’m the founder of the Center and serve as its president.) Designed to pull together small groups of people who, in age, gender, race, and residence, look like the face of Michigan, these conversations offer citizens a relaxed, anonymous setting in which to voice their opinions.
The first community conversations, called “Michigan’s Defining Moment," took place 2007-10. They asked participants what kind of state they hoped to have and invited them to develop an action plan for achieving that vision. The effort involved more than 10,000 Michiganders in 580 community conversations all around the state – the largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history.
The result was an agenda for Michigan’s transformation. It wound up setting much of the agenda for the 2010 election debate and formed much of the core of Gov. Rick Snyder’s campaign platform and subsequent legislative program.
The Center kicked off a new round of community conversations last week at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn branch campus. The subject this time around is how best to improve student learning in our schools, focusing on the customers of the education industry – students, parents/families, employers – who are not usually included in the fierce debates about education now taking place. Contrary to present political practice, the idea is not to demonize anybody, but to conduct an exploration of how citizens feel we can best improve student learning.
I sat quietly in the back row of Professor Dale Thomson’s course in Michigan politics, where the conversation took place. The most impressive thing about this class of 32 was the degree of diversity. There were Arab-American women, some wearing head scarves, some not. There were African Americans, some bulky in football team shirts and others more civilian. There were young undergraduates, older men and women with children in school, a few teachers and substitute teachers, a white suburban policeman and an elderly gentlemen who spoke with a charming French accent.
Participants were given an issue guide that, in 20 pages, presents what every citizen needs to know about schools in Michigan and the various ideas at play to improve them. Participants were also given “clickers” – “your tool for democracy” said one of the discussion leaders – and asked to vote on various topics. Votes are tallied and a database at Public Sector Consultants, a research firm in Lansing, will form the core of a report on student learning that the Center will issue next year.
What we are learning so far is that people are not happy about the quality of schools in out state. Seventy-two percent graded them either “C” or “D." Opinions were better when it came to local schools, with 50 percent rating them either “A” or “B."
How best to improve school quality? By raising the bar for teacher preparation? By increasing support for teachers? By holding teachers accountable? Seventy-seven percent said raising the bar for teachers was “crucial” or “important." Holding teachers accountable for student learning got high grades: 62 percent rated accountability crucial or important.
Other questions included various ideas on how to increase student learning: Reducing class size; improving the school calendar; focusing on online learning; working with pre-kindergarten early education. How important is parental involvement and how best to achieve it?
Votes were taken. Discussion flourished. The policeman said, “Sure teachers are important, but parents are the key. They institute discipline and values needed for success in school.” Another woman, a substitute teacher, said “There are 500 kids in the school where I teach, but you see just the same 10 parents at every parent-teacher conference you hold.”
The range of ideas was breathtaking. The concern of nearly everybody in the room was real and urgent. Opinions were offered and discussed civilly. Heads nodded when a teacher and mother of two said, “Learning is a problem for our whole society, not just the teachers or the schools.”
What’s important about these community conversations is that they offer a way to push past the hyper-partisanship of our current politics to focus on the views of ordinary citizens. “This is not just idle chatter,” said one of the moderators. “Citizen views can cut through the noise of partisan conflict in a powerful way.”
If you are interested in participating or convening a community conversation in your own area, shoot an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. And get prepared for an inspiring and illuminating experience.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.