A persistent problem in politics in Michigan (not to mention in Washington, D.C.) is that it’s tough to get anything meaningful done.
Think fixing the roads here at home. Think immigration reform in Washington. Think the many holdups over the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River.
All these – not to mention other subjects far too numerous to name – keep getting caught up in the sticky webs of politics, ideology, budget, ego, ambition, money and rampant special interests, not to mention the effects of gerrymandering and term limits.
Result? Expensive, continuing, frustrating gridlock.
But fortunately not always – nor for everything. Last week, the legislature gave final passage to the state budget, and in the process showed that in two cases, two significant reforms managed to survive – and even thrive – despite the political wars.
The first one means that we may soon have a way of making sure Michigan has better teachers. The budget just passed allocates an extra $1.8 million to speed up the timetable to revamp many of the state’s out-of-date teacher certification tests.
Making teacher certification better and tougher is widely seen as one of the keys to improving teacher quality in Michigan schools, where student performance lags that in most other states.
Troubles with the teacher certification tests were detailed last fall in Bridge’s Building a Better Teacher, a series examining our state’s teacher preparation system. Bridge reported Michigan was shortchanging its children by setting low standards for beginning teachers. Those ranged from schools of education that accepted academically iffy students, to state certification tests that didn’t weed out poorly prepared teacher candidates.
Bridge discovered many Michigan certification tests were way too easy, with some having pass rates of 90 percent, about the same rate as candidates for a cosmetology license.
But when Michigan’s department of education beefed up the certification test all would-be teachers must take, the pass rate plummeted from 82 percent to 26 percent!
Teachers are also required to pass additional certification tests for various specific subjects, such as math and science. These tests have not been brought up to date in years, and education authorities had figured it would take nearly a decade to fix them.
Now, with the extra $1.8 million, state education officials estimate they can finish the job in a year or two.
And the legislature also broadened and deepened another significant reform, providing extra money for the state’s Great Start Readiness Program, a pre-kindergarten program aimed at poor and vulnerable four year-olds. The legislature last year approved an increase of $65 million; this year’s budget adds another $65 million, which raises the total budget for GSRP to $239.6 million, more than double what it was in fiscal 2013.
The latest increase should make it possible for an additional 10,000 Michigan four-year-olds to get into free, high-quality pre-K classrooms this fall.
This latest step means that Michigan is now a leader among states increasing support for early childhood programs. Again, Bridge last fall published a series detailing how 30,000 Michigan children eligible for GSRP weren’t admitted because of insufficient state funding, poor coordination between programs and inadequate transportation for strapped, often hard-working but poor parents.
The extra money will pay for more early childhood classrooms to open and help pay for transportation – a real help for stressed parents trying to juggle work and get kids to pre-K programs. Although official numbers won’t be ready for some time, experts are predicting this extra support for GSRP will go a long way to providing slots for the “forgotten 30,000” who in past years couldn’t get in.
This is vitally important. Long-term studies conducted by the High Scope Educational Research Foundation showed that children who participate in GSRP programs are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than children who don’t.
Plus, they have lower dropout rates and higher incomes as adults than children who do not attend preschool.
Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed expansion of GSRP in his State of the State messages in both 2012 and 2013. And I’m proud to say he cited the Center for Michigan’s research and journalism as a major factor. This year’s budget result was hailed nationally in a tweet from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:
— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) June 12, 2014
All this was especially gratifying to me. One reason I founded the Center for Michigan back in 2006 was to see if we could figure out a way through the persistent gridlock that has stymied progress through the political system in so many areas.
Now, it’s beginning to look as though this is paying off.
What’s clear is that the Center’s public “community conversation” engagement programs, policy research and fact-based journalism through Bridge, is providing effective and successful example of ways through the political thicket.