A Who’s Who of Michigan civic leaders announced Wednesday a joint effort to try to reform Michigan’s struggling schools, focusing first on early literacy and routing more money to high-poverty and rural schools.
The organization, called Launch Michigan, may be the most ambitious collaboration of philanthropy, education, labor, business and community leaders in the long, stumbling history of education reform in the state.
It’s also an effort that is most similar to organizations in other states — such as Massachusetts and Tennessee — that have successfully steered education reform.
“This is the kind of consensus you have to develop around big-picture ideas to make real change,” said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan and former Democratic state representative from Ann Arbor. “It’s even more important in Michigan because of the amount of political upheaval we have every two, four, eight years because of term limits. We can’t ever have a consistent direction because we don’t have anyone guiding us.
“The idea behind Launch is to provide that guidance,” Zemke said.
By most measures, Michigan is in the bottom half of states in academic achievement. Michigan fourth-graders rank 32nd in reading in the latest National Assessment of Academic Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” and 42nd in math.
Michigan ranked last in the Midwest in every category measured by NAEP, and Detroit ranks last among the nation’s big city schools.
“For how many years now, there have been all kinds of efforts to improve education, and our results have been stagnant,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan and a co-chair of Launch Michigan.
“The fundamental motivation for Launch Michigan was to try to find a common agenda and work together.”
That hasn’t always been easy. The group includes leaders representing teacher unions, parents, traditional public school districts, charter schools, chambers of commerce, and Michigan foundations. Rothwell said it took a lot of hours of meetings for the members, who have often been on opposite sides of education policy issues, to coalesce around reforms all agreed would improve Michigan schools.
“We said, ‘Let’s see if we can all get on the same page,’” Rothwell said. “It took us a lot of (time) to build trust among groups that weren’t used to working together.”
Members of Launch Michigan include representatives from three chambers of commerce, Business Leaders for Michigan and the Small Business Association of Michigan; the state’s two biggest teacher unions; several education associations, a parent-teacher organization and Michigan Schools Superintendent Michael Rice; the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents charter schools in the state; several major charitable foundations and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District, said it is an encouraging sign that such disparate groups have coalesced around education reform.
“After years of talking at each other,” Koehler said, “we’re actually talking with each other.”
“After years of talking at each other, we’re actually talking with each other” — Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent Kent Intermediate School District
For now, the group isn’t pushing Lansing for an increase in school funding. Instead, it hopes to start by transferring money from existing education programs in the state budget and looking for efficiencies in Michigan’s sprawling, financially disjointed K-12 system.
That money, which would be in addition to the per-pupil foundation allowance schools now receive, would be doled out in a weighted formula, with schools with higher proportions of low-income students getting more money. Rural districts would also receive extra money.
It’s a plan similar to one that was proposed by Gov. Whitmer in the 2019-20 budget and rejected by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The group said it wants to focus on improving literacy in early grades as its first effort.
Just how much money the group hopes the Legislature and governor will put in that equity fund will likely be announced in early 2020, Rothwell said.
The group said it will begin lobbying members of the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January, hoping to move money within the 2020-21 school budget to create what it calls an “equity fund.” Leading that effort will be Zemke and Lindsay Case Palsrok, former senior director of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, who will be executive director.
Rothwell said Launch Michigan is patterned after Tennessee’s SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), a nonpartisan organization that has helped steer education reform through Republican and Democratic governors. Tennessee’s student performance has increased rapidly in the past decade.
“We asked them (SCORE officials) how they did it,” Rothwell said. “They said, ‘We got everyone around the table and came up with a common agenda and we stuck with it.’ That was really the key. If we’re zigzagging between (policies) you’re not going to make as much gain as if you make a plan and stick with it.”
Business organizations and philanthropies are funding the organization, Rothwell said.
“No matter where you are in Michigan, our kids are not performing as well as in comparable districts elsewhere in the country,” Rothwell said. Education reform “should be something we all agree on.”