Michigan superintendent: Need more career tech, teachers, mental health care

Michael Rice bluntly calls for more taxpayer money to help children with more needs, and wider recognition of the mental-health challenges that students bring to schools.

Michael Rice seldom shied from providing his blunt opinion on education issues as superintendent at Kalamazoo Public Schools. On his seventh day as state superintendent, Rice made it apparent he’d be just as blunt as the state’s top voice in education. 

In an Aug. 8 interview with Bridge, Rice seemingly broke with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on whether to close Benton Harbor High School, suggested the state is overhyping the need to go to a four-year college, and said the Legislature must open its checkbook and spend more on education.

Related: New Michigan Superintendent: Keep Benton Harbor High open

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: You’re taking over as the state’s top school leader in the middle of a controversy over Benton Harbor Schools. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed closing the high school because of bad academic performance and huge debt. Should Benton Harbor High close?
Rice: No

Bridge: You seem to be putting yourself crossways with the governor on this.
Rice: I don’t think so, because strictly speaking, I don’t think that was a proposal; it was more, you have a deficit, here is one way of approaching it.

Bridge: You’re a proponent of expanded career and vocational tech opportunities for students. Why?
Rice: I think we've oversold the four-year college experience. That’s not to say that university education is a bad thing, university education is tremendously important. And I'm the wrong person to argue against higher education. On the other hand, everybody is not interested in going to college for years, and everybody's not interested in a career that requires four years of higher education.

We ought to be about exposing children to a wide range of jobs so that they're aware that these jobs are out there. You may or may not have wanted to be a welder when you were growing up. Similarly, for me. It helps, though, to know that there's such a thing called welding, and the requisite background to become a welder, this is what you can (earn), these are the conditions, this is what you get to do.

Bridge:  What can the state do to improve early literacy?
Rice: There is no argument in the state that we have to do better. With respect to literacy, it's fundamental for everything else in public education. And I might add everything else in a 21st-century life, as well.

I’m a proponent of summer literacy programs. … [and] there should be universal 4-year-old preschool, which you see not only a focus in a number of studies, but also directionally where the governor wants to go.

Bridge: Would that be universal free pre-K, or a sliding scale cost based on income?
Rice: One could easily argue for a sliding scale. I think that's legitimate. But there ought to be a reasonable enough sliding scale that you don't inadvertently exclude people. Because, you know, the idea that simply because someone is defined as middle class that they have the wherewithal to send their 4-year-old to pre-K is not necessarily the case.

Bridge: Gov. Whitmer has proposed a K-12 budget that relies more on a weighted formula for school funding than past budgets – giving more money to students who are in groups that take more financial resources to educate, such as low-income students and English language learners. Do you favor a weighted formula?
Rice: There's no question about it. This is a big deal. This is a game changer.

We’ve had five studies in five years all saying the same thing: We’re underfunded and we’re not equitably funded. We don't fund different children in different ways [though] different children have different needs. We don't do that in this state. And that adversely affects what we get in terms of outcomes.

Related: After three student suicides, one Michigan school district fights back

Bridge: That can’t happen without more money?
Rice: That's correct. There's no question. We get what we pay for. And remember, the young people that we educate in this state are needier than in many other states. Our poverty levels are higher than many other states. Our children come [to school] with less exposure [to reading] and greater needs than in many other states.

Bridge: There’s a growing teacher shortage in Michigan that is leading to a vast increase in the number of long-term substitutes, who often have no teaching background, leading classrooms. Is that a concern to you?
Rice: We have a number of shortage areas; in subject areas, geographical areas. It is increasingly adversely affecting the profession and, by extension and more importantly, young people.

It’s a problem that's been at least a decade in the making, and it is going to take the better part of the next 10 years to reverse it. But we have to reverse it. The future of the profession and more importantly, the future of young people, really depends upon it.

Bridge: What’s an issue in schools the Legislature doesn’t have a keen awareness of yet that needs more funding?
Rice: Student mental health. Educators know this is an issue. Increasingly our citizens realize that this is an issue. I don't think our legislatures nationally have caught up to this.

Among practitioners, they know that there are a lot of young people who are struggling with anxiety, who are struggling with depression, who are struggling with more profound mental health challenges. And we’re increasingly seeing it in these very powerful moments - Dayton, El Paso, Newtown. (But) much of what we experience in schools isn't extraordinary, isn't genocidal. It's just the garden-variety child who feel so depressed that he can't get out of bed, or the child that feels so anxious that she's uncomfortable going to school because she doesn't know how to navigate the hallways.

How do we address that? How do we see those signs? How do we address growing mental health challenges? And how do we work with young people to get them to a better place?

I want to work with educators, with doctors, with associations, to drive up the consciousness around this.

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Bob Balwinski
Tue, 08/13/2019 - 10:18am

With a MI Secondary Permanent Teaching Certificate and being "highly qualified" with respect to Federal law, I still must reiterate that I am NOT coming back to teach mathematics.

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 10:58am

Regarding the shortage of teachers in Michigan, what is the starting salary (adjusted for cost of living) for new teachers in Michigan verses other states? What is your remedy?
Given whole areas of "Special Needs" education, can you show us what we get for the extra money you want us to invest? How do you justify the (costly) investment you want the taxpayers to make in these programs that weren't perceived to even be needed 40 years ago?
Do you believe we can take kids largely with zero exposure to basic mechanical, carpentry, home improvement, fixing lawn mowers etc, etc ... just basic hands on stuff that was commonly seen forty years ago and believe that in their junior yearout of the blue, they'll recognize their interest or abilities and move in that direction?

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 3:26pm

I am sorry but I have mixed emotions about spending more money to educate kids who can't speak English. Why should that be our burden? I'm probably going to have to go to confession now...

David Waymire
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 11:40am

Because the next great inventor just might be a young girl from Syria, driven here by a war that American policies helped to create, who could change the world. Are you not willing to invest a few pennies (your contribution) to that opportunity?

Fri, 08/23/2019 - 6:43am

Maybe after confession, you should go to an American History class so you can learn that millions of Americans came to America as immigrants who were unable to speak English and that their children learned to speak English in American public schools. It was these non-English speaking Americans who helped build the greatest country on the earth. Then you can go back to making bigoted comments.

David Waymire
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 1:52pm

Not welding again. There are two categories for welding in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The mean average wage of general welders in Michigan, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $39,670. There are 13,410 of them in our state. In 2006, there were 12,400 of these positions, and their pay averaged $38,820 a year In other words, in a decade, the pay has increased only a minuscule amount, and frankly, $40,000 a year is not a very lucrative job to train for.
There is also a category for welding machine setters: 2,750 of them, with average wage of $39,390. In 2006, Michigan had 5,190 of these positions, and they paid a handsome $44,180. In other words, these jobs, which were probably union positions in auto plants, are paying less and going away.
I am all for making sure young men and women in high school have every option. But they should be informed options.

Bill Jaglowski
Fri, 08/16/2019 - 5:02pm

The schools are spending more & more on special ed. More & more students are on mood-altering medications. What's the common denominator here? There are many environmental factors that have changed for our students. The one I choose to focus on, the one most easily solved, is the exposure to vaccine toxins. Vaccines are now given pre-birth, on the first day after birth, & frequently throughout childhood. The toxic load is cumulative, especially aluminum, effecting brain functions. Yet, all we hear from the MDHHS is "give MORE vaccines"! Since 1986, the vaccine profiteers cannot be sued for any deaths or injuries, so they, of course, keep producing & recommending that we buy even more, without doing any ethical safety studies. It would be great to see some media coverage in Michigan discussing this issue. Thank you!

Annie Brown
Sun, 08/18/2019 - 10:05am

As school enrollment shrinks across the state and leaves empty classrooms in school buildings that were built in the last 30 years, why don't we move county mental health offices into our school buildings? Free office space and the mental health counselors are just down the hall from their clients.