Republicans pretty much swept the board in last November’s elections. They re-elected Gov. Rick Snyder, increased their already crushing majorities in both the state House, now 63-47, and Senate, 27-11, and picked up a bunch of local offices.
Given those circumstances, you might have expected Lansing to be bubbling over with Tea Party style policy proposals. But other than promoting old reliable causes ‒ such as repealing prevailing wage requirements for state construction jobs ‒ most of the discussion has been relatively measured, even centrist.
Maybe that’s because nobody in the Capitol is going do or say anything ferocious until voters decide May 5 whether to increase the sales tax to fix the roads. The lawmakers and the governor also need to sort out what to do about a state budget that seems to be several hundred million in the red.
Look closely at Snyder’s executive budget message last week. He called for $48.6 million ($25 million from state funds, $23.6 federal) in increased support for a “statewide, comprehensive strategy to ensure that children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.” Most educators believe that is the key to predicting future student success, and the governor plainly agrees.
Much of that money would be applied to various early child education initiatives designed to improve proficiency in school.
- Expanded home visiting programs for vulnerable, at-risk families to encourage better parenting, increased literacy, and early detection of disabilities and developmental delays.
- Improving early child care services by extending eligibility and increasing pay for higher quality child care.
- A non-governmental oversight commission to monitor long-term improvements in third-grade reading, and a kindergarten entry assessment system to see how investments in early childhood programs actually work out in practice.
The governor also called for a 2.2-percent increase in state spending to support public colleges and another 1.4 percent boost for community colleges. He also called for more money for schools serving financially distressed pupils and districts with a high proportion of students at risk due to poverty.
At the same time, Business Leaders for Michigan issued a new report emphasizing its push to focus state support on higher education, with greater emphasis on college enrollment and trade school and vocational education programs.
Doug Rothwell, the group’s CEO, said “70 percent of Michigan jobs in 2020 will require some level of education beyond high school.” Today, that’s true of only 37 percent of Michigan’s working age population. Rothwell added that salaries for people with any education beyond high school are, on average, 22 percent higher than those with only a high school degree. People with a college degree have average salaries twice as high. “If we fail to produce this kind of talent, good jobs will get filled elsewhere and we won’t raise personal incomes here at home,” he concluded.
What’s interesting about this “pincer strategy” (pre-kindergarten and college) for increasing investments in human capital is that both run counter to long-held assumptions about the political system’s emphasis on the short term. Clearly, courage is sometimes lacking in Lansing: State lawmakers last December ducked deciding on a long-term fix for deteriorating state roads and bridges by punting it to the voters. Now, we’ll have to decide whether to approve an amendment that would increase the sales tax, money that would be used to fix the roads, but also to provide more funds to schools and restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.
But they also can do better: Three years ago, the legislature elected to focus on the long run by increasing substantially state support for the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) aimed at poor and vulnerable four year-olds. Studies conducted by the HighScope Educational Research Foundation showed that kids who went through GSRP when 4 were 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who didn’t. Because lawmakers were willing to look forward, Michigan now leads the nation in increasing state support for early childhood initiatives.
Now the governor is talking about higher education in the same terms, with powerful support from the business community.
Like Rothwell’s group, the Grand Rapids-based Talent 2025 has been arguing for years that Michigan’s economy could be strangled by failure to provide education and training to fill a workforce that will be soon be depleted by massive retirements.
Behind the increased talk about investing in human capital is a fascinating vision: Suppose Michigan actually made it a priority to become a top state in early childhood programs, reading proficiency, school learning performance, easy entry to vocational and trade school programs and adequate support for public colleges.
What kind of state would result from such a priority that drove policy for a decade or more, regardless of what party was in power?
Well, it would put Michigan on a par with Massachusetts, California, North Carolina and Minnesota. A state with high employment, high per family income, high in-migration rates of skilled workers. In short, a state that would benefit from policies designed to provide success in the 21st Century, not the 19th.
Obviously, it’s far easier to talk about such a state than actually achieve one. But if you listen carefully to what the governor and some lawmakers are talking about these days, maybe, just maybe, success isn’t utterly out of the question.