Report on Michigan schools should be start of statewide discussion on reform

News flash: Michigan residents want better schools, expanded early childhood programs and more support and more accountability for teachers. And they’re willing to pay more to get them.

These are among the findings from the largest effort ever made to gather and analyze public attitudes on K-12 schools in Michigan. More than 7,000 people participated in more than 250 small group “community conversations” held all over the state, plus two statewide polls conducted by the nonpartisan think-and-do tank, the Center for Michigan, I founded seven years ago.

All these results are presented in a report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education,” which is being released Tuesday at a Lansing press conference. In examining how best to improve student learning in our schools, The Center paid special attention to students, their families and employers – the customers of the education industry, whose views are too seldom considered in arguments about reform.

The report finds Michiganders view our schools in general as mediocre; nearly three in four gave our public education system a grade of “C” or worse. African Americans and low-income families – those most in need of good schooling to succeed – are the most critical of the system, which costs Michigan taxpayers around $13 billion each year, state government’s largest single expense.

What I found fascinating was that two reforms getting a tremendous amount of discussion in Lansing -- increasing school choice and online learning -- have the least public support among eight possible initiatives considered in the report.

The demography – age, gender, race, geography – of participants in the community conversations very closely matched the diversity of Michigan’s population. Conversations took place during much of 2012, and the data was forwarded for analysis to Public Sector Consultants, a research firm in Lansing.

I hope there will be a fair amount of attention paid to this report, in part because it represents the largest, most nuanced attempt to probe citizen attitudes toward our schools.

And this report should not be considered as just another poll, but rather an opportunity for Michigan citizens to discuss at length in community conversations their feelings about their schools; it is a method that might be called “deliberative democracy.”

But the report itself and the small group meetings that produced it are only the most obvious aspects of work carried out by the Center for Michigan, which I founded to try to make Michigan a better place by improving the workings of our democratic system.

Anybody looking at the persistent gridlock in Washington and at the often high-pitched partisanship in Lansing knows that our political system isn’t working very well today.

What’s more, as a practical matter, citizens don’t have much chance to gain a foothold in the political discourse of our state, much less our nation -- unless they are multi-millionaires, presidents of unions or heads of large special interest groups.

Why? In large part, this stems from the fact that the political parties and the special interests that fund them (and increasingly control them) are often locked in a tight embrace in which political power is closely mixed with special pleadings, aided by big money.

Mostly left out of this mix are ordinary citizens.

The Center seeks to change that, partly by holding statewide community conversations as ways for ordinary Michiganders to consider important policy matters and to reach their own conclusions.

Together with fact-based reporting in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the Center, we use these conversations as a way to seek out citizen opinions, amplify and bring them into the halls of power as legitimate expressions of popular will.

The idea is to bring the consensus views of ordinary citizens directly into the heart of policy making by our political leaders. That is, we believe, what democracy is supposed to be all about.

We believe this can provide important context and nuance to policy debates in Lansing. And we hope they represent a way to make Michigan a better place to improve the workings of our political system by making it more responsive to the views of regular citizens.

“The Public’s Agenda for Public Education” is available online here. I hope it represents a step forward in improving our schools for all our children … and improving the workings of our democratic system.

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 chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via

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Tue, 01/22/2013 - 9:09am
I went to two different editions of your Community Conversations, one in Ann Arbor for the general public and one aimed at STEM employers and post-secondary teachers/administrators. In both cases, a very large percentage of the people who self-selected to participate are professionally involved and economically dependent on the current state-funded education system. Neither PreK-12 nor the colleges are organized to be able to survive under a "radical" student choice funding model. Therefore, with a natural reluctance about radical change, those who are most engaged in the existing system don't support allowing families to choose the school system to receive, or split the state-provided funding for their students. I think my kids would flourish in a system where a student could take each of their "core" classes from a different provider, take electives from yet other schools/programs, sit proctored exams for all of these in the nearest "neighborhood" school and be granted credits towards a diploma or professional credential. I also think I could help guide them to the resources that matched their current challenge level in each subject, rather than the current "all 6th graders take 6th grade English, math, science and social studies". Teachers in most school districts struggle to serve students with very diverse levels of academic achievement in each classroom. We would see much better results from subject-by-subject achievement grouping of students and differentiation, including free access to special tutoring for students more than a year behind or ahead of their age-level expectations.
David Johnson
Tue, 01/22/2013 - 4:32pm
I would suggest to Anna and others to access (The Public Education Finance Act which our governor has entrusted to the Oxford Foundation). You could add your comment to the "Project Questions and Community Response" section which is part of the Community Engagement link on this site. Yours is the type of anecdotal support they'd appreciate hearing, as it validates the type of differentiated instruction they BELIEVE will be enhanced with their proposal. HOWEVER, what you'll find, too, is over eighty pages of commentary that overwhelmingly challenges this legislative initiative and the devastating effects it is likely to have on our State's system of education. I became sooooo much more aware of the myriad effects which this reform initative would have on public education. Thus, I am very grateful to the Center for Michigan for providing a resource and clearinghouse that solicits non-partisan and deliberative thought processes. I only hope that the results of such public input can blunt the pre-conceived policy decisions by both an executive and legislative branch that has not shown much interest in grass-roots ramifications of their actions.
Bret Huntman
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 9:45am
As a parent of school aged children, I support the findings of the report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education,". To borrow a phrase feel that "dilution is not the solution" and it is my opinion that is exactly what the proposals for increasing school choice and online learning are doing to the system. It would be one thing if the system were at least achieving a "B" grade, then yes, expand the opportunities and choices IF there are EXCESS funds available to do so.
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 11:53am
"We believe this can provide important context and nuance to policy debates in Lansing. And we hope they represent a way to make Michigan a better place to improve the workings of our political system by making it more responsive to the views of regular citizens." It is good for Mr. Power and his assoicates to take pride in their efforts. The reality is that when the ony purpose of such an activity is talking then al it needs to be successful is having people talk. It did succeed, people talked for hours and hours and hours. Out of all that talking Mr. Power gained hope. The problem with Mr. Power's hope is the same hope that you have when you buy a lottery ticket, you trust to random chance that your hope will be fulfilled. It is disa[[ointing that the purpose of all these meetings and all these people's time and effort wasn't about listening, and not just taking down the words that were said, but drawing out the ideas, creating small groups to expand those ideas, creat ad hoc teams to explore and give substance to those ideas, to draw on those people willing to express their view into the process of champioin those ideas, of testing those ideas. THere was so much potnetial left out of just talking. If Mr. Powers or any others truly want want change from such efforts they need to do more than simply turn the lights on in a room for people to come to express themselves. They need to first be discipline in treating this as a project, establishing a formal purpose, a ddescription of the impact plan to make, develop metrics for the project, establish regualr perfromance reviews. They need to recognize that there will be an project of action integrated in to the project of drawing out ideas. We can hoe for better eduication for our children, and better jobs here in Michigan. The reality is that educatoin takes work on the students part, just as establishing businesses thaat hire people takes work on the business owners part, so does turning hope into reality on the peole who hopes part. Congratulation on the 'success' of the talking tour as there was a lot of talking and a lot of hope. Is there that much work coming out of it?
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 1:25pm
Maybe the wrong questions were being asked? What is learning and when does the best retention happen? Is it when the student is listening to a TEACHER present the information, is it when the STUDENT reads the information, or is when the STUDENT applies the information (homework)? Once that is decided maybe that will point us to what needs to be changed.
Susan c brown,K...
Sun, 02/03/2013 - 8:27pm
Do we even stand a chance for pre k to become a reality? There is a group in Kalamazoo very active in our community to have at least a pilot pre K which fits well with the Kalamazoo Promise- any advice?