History, they say, is written by the winners. And here’s a rock-solid political truth: The folks with the votes write the notes.
Michigan Republicans overwhelmingly control the House of Representatives (63-47). So if you look through the 24-page, nicely designed House Republican Action Plan for 2015 you get a pretty good idea of what notes Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) and his colleagues intend to play this year.
That is, once voters decide May 5 whether to raise the sales tax to fix the roads, and once the governor and legislature agree how to fix a state budget that’s current several hundred million in the red.
The target date for budget stabilization is June 1. Once that’s done, you can bet the lawmakers will be turning their gaze to the GOP’s 78-item action plan. It pretty much covers the entire waterfront. Among other things, it calls for repealing the state’s prevailing wage rules, eliminating local ordinances that require paid sick days, reforming the teacher retirement system, reviewing the role of land banks and establishing a uniform definition of a veteran.
Most consequential, however, are these four items:
- Adopting a teacher performance evaluation system that is accurate, fair, transparent, easy to administer -- and one that won’t be trashed by the teachers’ unions.
- Adopting stiffer certification tests for graduates of schools of education. (This needs to come with some – any – system of accountability for the state’s schools of education, which annually produce around 4,000 graduates of varying quality for only around 2,500 new openings.)
- Initiatives to deal with third-grade reading performance, a generally recognized benchmark that determines which children are likely to succeed in school. Last term, a proposal that would have held back every third grader who didn’t pass a proficiency exam withered, after critics said it would be very expensive but not do much to help the kids who needed it.
- Reform of the state’s corrections system, which now costs far more than Michigan spends to support the entire system of public colleges and universities. Lost during the chaos of last year’s lame-duck legislative session were a number of carefully thought-through proposals by outgoing, term-limited state Rep. Joe Haveman, (R-Holland) including sentencing reform.
The GOP blueprint was rattling around in my head last week while I listened to a fascinating presentation on school reform made by officials from Tennessee. While Michigan’s school performance has declined in recent years, other states have shot ahead, particularly Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts and Minnesota (The reasons why are featured in a series of articles in Bridge Magazine, published as “The Smartest Kids in the Nation.”
Tennessee is particularly interesting. The state spends less per pupil in school and pays teachers substantially less than Michigan. Yet its academic performance as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination has shot ahead of ours.
There are lots of reasons Tennessee has excelled, including high-stakes teacher evaluations, increased investment in teacher on-the-job training and quick-turnaround student achievement data. It’s impressive that some of these are included in the Republican house policy agenda.
Only one absolutely essential thing is lacking, not just in the recent GOP report but in literally decades of Michigan education policy from both parties. But it’s a big one: An overreaching long-term policy focus on making schools better.
The Tennessee folks (can’t mention names because the session, mysteriously, was off the record) made it perfectly clear: For more than a decade, under both Republicans and Democrats, the Volunteer State has made improving education a singular focus. Their suggestion: “Get widespread agreement that the entire future of the State of Michigan depends on the education of your citizens at the state and local level.”
Without being disrespectful to the Republican policy agenda, any priority list with 78 items on it has no priorities.
I understand why they did this. Because our present political system requires slicing and dicing the world into specific constituencies with specific interests, there’s a great tendency to pander to every known interest group by issuing lengthy cover-the-entire-waterfront policy proposals.
That may make political sense. But in the real world, the rule is simple: No focus, no progress.
Try to do everything, and you accomplish little or nothing. If we’re ever going to get serious about our state’s future, we need to recognize this, buckle down, and make improving the education of our citizens Michigan’s overwhelming priority.