Sunday, February 25, 2007

Are Schools a drag on Michigan?

Manny Lopez wrote a great opinion piece today:

Yes, let's invest -- in accountability and results - Detroit News (02/25/07)

It makes us realize how "investment" is being considered the omnipotent answer to every problem facing the state:

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is big on investments these days.

Almost as big as she is on buzzwords, catch phrases and public relations campaigns. Nary an interview goes by without her breathlessly insisting that Michigan's future rests with investments.

We need to invest in education, worker retraining, health care, kids and the elderly, she says. We need to invest in roads, technology and new economy jobs.

It's hard to argue with that, but how we do it is another game altogether. When pressed about how we can invest without having cash on hand, she sidesteps: "How can we afford not to invest?"

Pardon me while I hurl.

Mr. Lopez astutely points out, "We can't afford to pump any more money into the system until spending is tied to results"

Now consider those thoughts in the context of the interesting piece by Ron Dzwonkowski of the Detroit Free Press:

Choosing to Move - Detroit Free Press (02/25/07)

It summarizes a discussion with a young couple that is moving due to "more security, growth, and activity in Chicago."

Surprisingly, the article doesn't mention education, but it does include many other reasonable points: concern over crime, taxes, stability, growth, and "quality of life" issues.

It ends on a sad note, with Mr. Dzwonkowski suggesting were he 30 years younger he might be following them to a brighter future.

So what do we do to rebut those concerns? How do we stop the caravan of U-Hauls out of Michigan? And more importantly, what could be done that might attract that couple -- or other new residents who become new taxpayers -- to relocate (back) to Michigan?

Mr. Lopez points out, "More money isn't the answer. Michigan doesn't need to invest more, it needs to invest better."

What it takes is leadership.

Schools are a major part of this equation, and those of us involved in education need to be held accountable.

Consider these two factors:

1) Schools receive over one-third of the state budget. When combined with federal and local spending, the total dollars dedicated to education tops $20 billion dollars. Per-pupil spending by the state has increased at twice the rate of inflation over the past 10 years, and is among the highest in the nation. But despite all of this funding, school spending is out of control. There is plenty of investment, but no financial accountability.

2) Despite this huge “investment”, schools are generally producing poor results. Michigan schools -- and Michigan parents -- can myopically rattle off the best performing schools in their local area. But what most Michiganians don't understand is that Michigan schools in general don't rank well against many other states when looking at many national statistics, such as the NAEP (used as “The Nation’s Report Card”). And, the "best of our best" are not very remarkable when compared to their peers in other states on things such as ACT, SAT, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced Placement Participation.

These two factors are a major drag on Michigan.

First, the financial aspects are putting incredible pressure on lawmakers to either reallocate more tax dollars to education (and away from other important items), or instead increase taxes. Education's insatiable appetite for money is making it exceedingly difficult to invest in other things, and is a major contributor to the push for higher taxes.

Secondly, the lackluster school results can serve as one more compelling reason for people to leave the state, and they also works against us as we work to attract people back to the state.

Imagine how these factors – strained finances, potentially higher taxes, and mediocre schools – look to companies considering whether to make – or maintain – a major investment in Michigan. Imagine what it takes to persuade existing employees or new hires to move to or stay in Michigan.

Fortunately, Michigan has a great State Superintendent in Mike Flannigan, and he's working hard to fix this problem. But that is not enough. Most of the change must happen locally, where school boards are failing miserably to do anything other than whine about money.

Michigan needs a "culture of education" to drive improvement. This REQUIRES citizen involvement.

Whether you have children in the schools or not, you need to start paying attention to what your school district is doing. Check back soon and I’ll share some ideas on how you can go about doing your part.

==> Mike.

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