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Michigan’s #1 election issue is education

"There is a deep and fundamental crisis in this state.  Less than half the kids in every grade in every subject in the state of Michigan are at basic proficiency."

That's Mark Murray nailing it. He's vice chair of Meijer, Inc., former state treasurer and budget director, former president of Grand Valley State University and one of the most capable people in Michigan.

He was speaking at a Solution Summit last week in Grand Rapids, one of four around the state co-sponsored by the Center for Michigan designed to bring experts and citizens together, not to whine about the persistent deterioration of our schools but rather to begin developing solutions.

Solutions to complicated problems don't themselves have to be complicated. For the most part, the policy parts are relatively easy. What's tough is the implementation, which involves explaining why there is a crisis, generating a focused sense of urgency and pulling together a powerful, can-do coalition to provoke the political will to get something done.

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These summits - co-sponsored by Business Leaders for Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce - took place in Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids. Nearly a thousand people attended in person, while many more tuned in via social media. Speakers included business and political leaders, education experts and ordinary citizens.

Video: Watch the Detroit Solutions Summit on Education on YouTube

As I listened to the presentations and the discussion, a few main points became clear:

We face a deep, fundamental crisis: Michigan's schools have been falling behind other states for nearly a decade now, and some have been actually declining in performance during this time. And it's not just poor kids or minority kids or rural kids; it's everybody, everywhere. As Mark Murray says, the erosion has become so widespread that less than half of all Michigan kids in every grade and for every subject are at basic proficiency. Michigan is in the process of becoming the worst state educationally in the nation.

None of this is new: The decline has been going on for at least a decade.  Writing reports about what's wrong with our schools and how to fix them has become a cottage industry in Michigan, yielding numerous reports that are now filed away somewhere in the Department of Education, for the most part gathering dust. The structure of Michigan's education "system" appears to have been designed to fudge accountability and swallow efforts to reform. And the political system - importantly including the term-limited legislature, most members of which won't be around to see the disaster they have enabled - has shown no urgency to fix things.

Related: Got 6 minutes? Highlights of a dozen studies on Michigan schools​
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The economic consequences are awful: The only way we - and our children and grandchildren - are going to compete in a shrinking world where skill and talent are the only things that matter is to have good schools. People are not going to come to Michigan just for the climate. They're going to build businesses here to tap into smart Michiganders who can be be part of the workforce. Bad schools mean a badly educated and unskilled work force, and that surely spells persistent economic trouble.  This isn't a bleeding heart matter; it's simple economic necessity.

There's no doubt that fixing the crisis in our schools isn't easy. It's complicated; it's very contentious, not to mention partisan. The interest groups are big, powerful and very well dug in. And most of our state's leadership would prefer to wave their arms and let well enough alone. But other states have done it, and there is no reason we can't to it, too.  Experts from Tennessee and Massachusetts at the Solution Summit conference in Detroit explained why persistent, bipartisan, far-reaching efforts do pay off over the long run.

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If you think about it, what we are doing to our children - condemning them to a life of economic trouble, social insecurity and even personal misery - is nothing more than a textbook definition of child abuse. Tolerating continued deterioration of our schools is to enable long-term abuse of the futures of our children.

What all this adds up to is a powerful case to make fixing our schools the single most important issue in this year's election campaign.  

A group of Michigan and education leaders is already advocating for media and organizations that endorse in this fall's election to refuse to support candidates who do not bring forward a specific, detailed, coherent plan to reform our school system and fix our schools.  

Candidates who offer platitudes - "Oh, yes, there is nothing more important than schools for our kids" - without offering specific ideas and concrete details deserve to be treated with scorn.

I'm hoping what happens next in Michigan is an effort to pull together a broad, focused coalition that can develop a simple, compelling agenda to drive the discussion this summer and into the election. I urge everybody who reads this so join in. Our children and their children deserve no less.

Related: Dear teacher: We want to hire you. Here’s a huge pay cut. Sincerely, unions.

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