As Michigan schools struggle, Democrats and Republicans try...talking

Michigan educators caucus group

House members of the newly formed education caucus in the Michigan Legislature are, left to right, top row: Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond; Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown; Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing; Nate Shannon, D-Sterling Heights; Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods; Phil Green, R-Millington;

Middle row: Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti; Bradley Slagh, R-Zeeland; Kevin Coleman, D-Westland; Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth; Julie Brixie D-Meridian Township;

Front row: Jim Haadsma, D-Battle Creek; Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs; Lori Stone, D-Warren; Sheryl Kennedy, D-Davison; Donna Lasinski, D-Ann Arbor; Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac; Cara Clemente, D-Lincoln Park; Kristy Pagan, D-Canton.

Missing: Senators Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia; Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit; Betty Jean Alexander, D-Detroit; Erika Geiss, D-Taylor.

Sheryl Kennedy and Brad Paquette loved working in Michigan schools. Each left their jobs to run for the Michigan Legislature, motivated by the belief that they could help fix the state’s struggling education system.

When they arrived in Lansing, though, they walked into separate rooms on the second floor of the Capitol – Paquette, from Berrien Springs, into the Republican caucus room behind the House of Representatives chambers, and Kennedy, from Davison, into the Democratic caucus down the hall.

Now, they and other educators in the legislature have formed a bipartisan education caucus in the hopes of finding common ground in an area known more in recent years for partisan brawls than working together to raise student test scores.

Almost two dozen legislators with some past connection to Michigan schools ‒ Republicans and Democrats, in the House and Senate ‒ now meet once a month in a 13th-floor conference room of the House Office Building to talk about education.

The conversations aren’t always easy, admits Kennedy. The divide is wide between Republicans and Democrats on issues ranging from teacher unions to charter schools to K-12 state budgets.

But it’s a start.

“Everyone sitting around the table at the education caucus cares deeply about education,” said Kennedy, a former teacher and principal at Walled Lake Consolidated School now in her first term in the House. “There’s general enthusiasm about the potential of the group.”

There are 22 legislators with career backgrounds in education. When a handful more are added who have had “a foot in education” in some form, such as having served on local school boards, the number swells to about 30 who could be in the education caucus, Kennedy said. That’s one in five current legislators in the House and Senate.

Banded together, the former educators could form a formidable voting bloc on efforts to turn around Michigan’s struggling schools.

Michigan ranks 35th nationally in fourth-grade reading skills, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, referred to as the “nation’s report card.” The state ranks dead last in the Midwest in every category measured by NAEP. Michigan also is in the bottom half of states in the percentage of adults with college degrees.

Raising school achievement matters both for students (Those  with a four-year college degree earn, on average, $600,000-900,000 more over their lifetimes than those with a high school diploma; even shorter college stints or technical training bumps lifetime earnings by $200,000), and for the state’s overall economy. States with higher educational attainment tend to have higher median incomes, which provides more taxes for state services such as fixing roads. School quality is also a factor businesses consider when they are relocating.

One trait that states with high-achieving or fast-improving K-12 systems appear to share is a willingness among political, business and education leaders to coalesce around education reforms. Reforms vary among states, but the determination to row in the same direction is a common thread. 

Related: What Michigan schools can learn from leading states  

“If we can’t improve our education system, we can’t improve [our state],” said Paquette, a former high school teacher in Niles, in his first term in the House. “That’s the reason I ran.”

Ideas on how to improve schools, though, and how much money it will take, often vary by whether there is an “R” or a “D” behind the names of the legislators.

While there are nuances on each side, Democrats tend to believe the state must spend more money on schools and that funding should vary by the needs of the student, with more funding for example going to low-income and English language-learners who tend to need more services to achieve well academically. Republicans tend to favor school choice and local control, and argue that funding is already going up every year with little improvement in test scores to show for it.

“It’s very easy to get entrenched to the party dynamics of all that, and I’m diametrically opposed to that,” Paquette said. “Education is not a partisan thing.”

Newly elected legislators with education backgrounds began talking about forming an education caucus soon after coming to Lansing in January, and the group began meeting in the spring.

Currently, there are 23 legislators attending education caucus meetings, held once a month. There are 15 House Democrats, four House Republicans, and four Senate Democrats.

“A lot of us have been raised in different churches when it comes to education,” said Kennedy, the Democrat from Davison. “Me, it was public schools and MEA (Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union); for others, it’s private and charter schools.”

Added Paquette, the Berrien Springs Republican: “One thing we’ve been trying to do is bridge that divide, drop our biases and just be human beings around each other.”

At first, members were cautious about what they said. Some sent staffers at first to check it out. But its members are opening up more as they get to know each other, Kennedy said.

“We came to the table with our biases, and we’re working to build trust,” Kennedy said.

“It’s a tough issue, and people are very passionate about it,” Paquette said. “We’re often speaking different languages right out of the gate.”

The group has yet to identify issues where they believe they can reach accord. And, it must be noted, not a single education committee chair in the House or Senate has joined the caucus. Even Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, who chairs the House Education Committee and is a former teacher, does not belong to the group.

“This is more of a freshman group,” admitted Kennedy. “Some of the [veteran] legislators, they say, ‘This is a new group and good luck with that.’”

So far, the group’s meetings have focused on building relationships. “The goal is honest conversation, respectful of others’ opinions,” Kennedy said. “What’s said in the caucus stays in the caucus.”

Kennedy and Paquette, its unofficial leaders, said members hope to tour schools together and invite experts to talk to the group. On Aug. 23, the group plans to gather at Alma College to hear presentations from education leaders across the political spectrum.

“One of the visions of our group is to be a place where we’re vetting information for the non-education decision-makers” in the Legislature, Kennedy said.

Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said getting people who disagree about education to sit in the same room and talk is an encouraging step for Michigan.

“For the sake of students and teachers in the state, elected officials need to step away from what they think is the solution to the problem and look for a common solution,” Wortruba said “Republicans and Democrats sitting down together and trying to remove the ideology that has [hobbled] education for more than 20 years, that’s a great move on their part.”

The group’s ambitions haven’t tempered the views of individual members. In June, Kennedy gave a fiery speech on the steps of the Capitol to a gathering of teachers calling for more school funding, saying she was “fed up with the excuses” given by Republicans, who control the House and Senate, during budget talks. Paquette, meanwhile, co-sponsored a resolution to eliminate the Democrat-majority state school board.

Still, talking is better than not talking.

“I wholeheartedly believe that if you put good people in a room, good things occur,” Paquette said. “Sooner or later, light will shine.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 07/26/2019 - 8:52am

The decision making process for school policy seems fragmented and nonsensical.

Our constitution seems at odds with practice.

Our constitution gives policy making authority to the elected State Board of Education along with the sole authority to appoint a state supervisor to carry out this policy via the state board of education. The role of the legislature is to fund education, not make policy, according to our constitution. The role of the governor and his appointees in education policy is not prescribed in our constitution, with the assumption being that the administration has no role.

That's what the constitution appears to say. In practice, however, every Tom Dick and Harry in the state government and the legislature have their fingers in the education policy making pie and education administration at the state level.

Too many cooks spoil the soup. Until we fix the decision making process, there's no hope for consistent logical sensible public education policy in Michigan.

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:40pm

"to carry out this policy via the state DEPARTMENT of education." not board of education.

Jim tomlinson
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 9:09am

Dems want successful public ed for all. R’s and their patrons want for profits

Sat, 07/27/2019 - 3:43pm

You seem to believe that it is wants of the D and R legislators are important in the success of Michigan education, both will fail.

Whether it is legislators, School Boards, 'educators', or you, if they don't start the conversation by describing what is to be achieved/delivered, student learning, then what they propose or talk about will never change results for the better.
If there isn't a well defined description of what success will look like, then everyone will be working to their own perceptions, so even if it sounds like they are talking about the same things, they are using their personal assumption and are talking past each other and not working together.

In reality learning is a bottom up activity, the students have to do the learning and all the policies and protocols [top down] the adults [legislators and such] establish and follow will not change anything if the students don't have the desire to learn, aren't willing to make the sacrifice to learn, and aren't doing the studying.

D or R it doesn't matter what their wants are, that's not enough to improve student learning.

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 10:31am

These myopic ignorant legislators will never solve Michigan's education problems. They are to interested in serving their pandering lobbyists and getting reelected meanwhile keeping their actions form the public! They all need to go!

Paul Jordan
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:57pm

Maybe you missed the part where they said that these are the new legislators. You know, if they all go (as you seem to think), there will be others elected and maybe they'll be better.

Or perhaps you'd prefer a dictator?

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 10:58am

Looking at the photo I found myself thinking - 'Bet the GOP reps in this group are white males'.
Looking at the captions that appears true. Anyone else?

Mike Radke
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 11:51am

Ohhhh! Bipartisan is good. Listening is great. Seeking common ground is superb! Our kids and schools need an evidence based plan that is both practical and consistent in over time.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 12:54pm

This is a very positive sign. I wish them (and our kids) luck.

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 4:45pm

Good luck but unless you can get the real power brokers in the legislature to be a serious part of this group I doubt any suggestions that waiver from current ideological positions on education will simply be ignored.

Scott Roelofs
Fri, 07/26/2019 - 10:35pm

"Bipartisan Education Caucus?". 19 democrat members and 4 Republican members. Who is Bridge trying to fool? This appears bipartisan one. This group will start with little credibility.

Steven W Kluesner
Sat, 07/27/2019 - 5:00pm

As far as the question of what to invest in , I believe that if you look around the country at the systems which are functioning at a high level you'll find that they have hybridized their system (s) to allow for a mixed approach between public and private/charter schools , also mixing in more functional options for institutions run by religious entities ; all done with a focus on promoting what works for the students and flexibility in the approach implemented to maintain that a qualitative educational experience/opportunity be available/delivered to the students as continually/consistently as possible. Here in Michigan as well as across the nation best practices are where it's at and I have not seen where narrowly defined approach formed on an overly politically based construct is proving to generate anything close to optimum opportunities for the students . Hopefully people involved in formulating operational strategies at all levels can find their way to a much more viable system ; drop the politics and focus on generating value in the classroom experience , maybe this can be part of that (I hope so) ......

Sun, 07/28/2019 - 9:28am

Why does not our NEW AG take to court the fact that the republicans are giving charter schools in MI Public school money illegally!!!!