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

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.”

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