Before heading back home for campaigning, lawmakers in Lansing have two great opportunities to make Michigan a much better-governed state -- and in the process, establish a record of achievement for those who will be facing the voters this November.
One has to do with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The other has to do with changing (yet again) the test used to assess how our children are learning in school.
On FOIA, the House of Representatives has approved a 10-bill package, the first significant revisions to the act in its history. These remove exemptions that have officially allowed (and, in fact, encouraged) the legislature and governor’s office to operate in secret. Happily, only a handful of House members voted to keep the bright light of day away from political shenanigans.
Over the years, lots of weaknesses have surfaced in the Freedom of Information Act, now 40 years old. The biggest is that it contains a blanket exemption for the governor’s office. Michigan is one of only two states that allow governors and their staffs to operate in secret.
Partly because of this, the Center for Public Integrity last year ranked Michigan last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to transparency and ethical conduct in government.
What an embarrassment!
House lawmakers originally proposed FOIA improvements in the wake of the Flint water quality debacle, and after Gov. Snyder’s very carefully dribbled out disclosures of his office’s role in causing -- and then too-long ignoring -- the mess in Flint.
The existing FOIA law doesn’t explicitly exempt the legislature, but a 1986 opinion from the attorney general held that the statute is intended to shield lawmakers from public view while conducting the public’s business. Unless countermanded by the courts, attorneys general’ opinions are held to have the force of law.
Anybody who followed the secretive and embarrassing Todd Courser-Cindy Gamrat mess knows that the disinfecting sunlight of public knowledge might have gone a long way to prevent that infection from getting as bad at it eventually did.
Sadly, I figure sitting state senators, who don’t face the voters this fall, will find clever ways to weasel out of voting on these House-passed FOIA improvements before the legislature adjourns this fall.
I can always hope, but the odds are that cynicism is too often a more realistic expectation when it comes to open government.
Shifting gears to the ways we use to assess how our children are doing in school: The results from last spring’s M-STEP test demonstrated conclusively that Michigan has a long way to go to reach its goal of becoming a top 10 education state.
Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said in a recent column: “the worst thing we could do now would be to throw away the M-STEP assessment because we don’t like the results.”
Two years ago, the Michigan Department of Education, supported by the State Board of Education, adopted the M-STEP instrument after lengthy (and expensive) analysis and evaluation.
The idea was to replace the 44-year-old MEAP test with a better instrument that would provide a good reading on how our students are coping with real-world academic subjects -- and how we stand compared with other states.
Now, the word in Lansing is that some lawmakers, dissatisfied with the recent M-STEP findings, are thinking about changing the test – which would be the third change for students and teachers in four years.
This is silly and likely to cause no end of trouble.
For years, Lansing has spawned politicians who fight rigorous school standards, serious accountability and accurate assessment. To change the test now would mean it will take years before we accumulate meaningful information on how our students are progressing. Moreover, any meaningful comparison of our schools with those in other states would be out the window.
The State Board of Education, which often is torn by the same partisan clashes that affect all elected bodies these days, actually adopted M-STEP on an unusual bipartisan vote before the start of the 2014-15 school year. Undoing that work at this point would be nothing more than an exercise in debasing tough assessment and hindering badly-needed progress in improving our schools.
Let’s hope that in the cases of both freedom of information law and educational testing, the better angels of our nature prevail.