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‘Sanity caucus’ shepherds preschool reform, dollars through capital gridlock

I’ve had a few days now to mull over the goings-on at last week’s annual Mackinac Island Policy Conference.

Much of the talk on the enormous porch of the magnificent Grand Hotel was how our political system seems incapable of dealing with big subjects on which (mostly) right-wing Republican lawmakers seem unable to get behind their Republican governor, Rick Snyder:

Medicaid extension (scorned because it reeks of Obamacare); more money for roads and bridges (ducked because it entails raising taxes); and Common Core curriculum standards in education (rejected because they allegedly violate notions of state sovereignty).

Many people I talked with at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual confab voiced the opinion that our politics, both in Lansing and in Washington, are deadlocked because they are driven by extreme ideologues of both the right and the left.

“We’ve got extremist whack jobs running things,” a lawmaker told me, explaining that many GOP House members are terrified of being “primaried” by Tea Party-backed insurgents and feel the need to avoid this by proving how right-wing they are.

But there is one big exception to the policy gridlock.

The Legislature adopted and sent to the governor for signature an education budget that included a historic, nation-leading expansion of the state’s preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program. If all goes as planned, over the next two years, state support for GSRP will be more than doubled.

That means thousands of poor and vulnerable 4-year-olds now denied places will get the help they need to succeed in school. This is a heart-warming achievement, largely brought about by the coming together of what might be called a “sanity caucus” in Lansing.

First, Snyder and his education leaders recognized that early childhood programs are essentially the only way to improve school performance for poor and disadvantaged kids. As Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of education, keeps saying, “The only way for Michigan to meet universal third grade reading skills is to make preschool programs available to everybody who needs them.”

Next, legislative leaders came on board, encouraging lawmakers to do something very rare in Lansing: Adopt an investment plan with a 10-year payout. As a practical matter in this age of term limits, most lawmakers have a planning horizon of something like 18 minutes, so supporting something that will bear fruit only over the long run is very unusual and very courageous.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, called for substantial increases in state support for GSRP in his very first speech after narrowly winning re-election last fall. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called for a $140 million increase early on. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, joined in. Minority Democrats also quietly supported increased spending on GSRP, although they ended up mostly voting against the overall school budget for other political reasons.

But the politicians’ jobs were made easier by the philanthropic community, which was a staunch supporter of early childhood education from the very beginning. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ypsilanti-based High Scope Educational Research Foundation, in particular, provided important research data demonstrating that GSRP produced long-lasting results.

Supportive editorials appeared in state newspapers, ranging from the right-leaning Detroit News to the center-left Detroit Free Press. A key element was support from the business community that recognized that unless we start now to improve our schools, we simply won’t have the skilled and productive work force we need for our future prosperity.  More than 100 business leaders statewide joined the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan in urging lawmakers to take a stand for Michigan prosperity.

Business Leaders for Michigan, the powerful organization that unites Michigan’s largest and most progressive employers, added its voice. The Center for Michigan adopted early childhood as a priority that emerged from nearly 1,000 community conversations statewide. The Center, a “think and do tank, that I founded in 2006, demonstrated that it could both do and think at the same time.

Bottom line: At the end of the day, it was the emergence of this very broad-based “sanity caucus” that moved an otherwise immobile political system to adopt a very far-reaching investment program.

Today, it is common for people to wonder whether our democratic system can actually produce serious results in a timely and effective manner. But in this one case, what our Michigan political system managed to do over the year is the best possible demonstration that the system can work.

Maybe slowly, maybe hesitantly, but when it comes to early childhood education, it did indeed work.  And as a result, thousands of Michigan children will have a chance for a much better life.

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 email.

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