Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

It was 20 years ago today…

Republished from Written and Noted

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Amnesia can be wonderful thing, especially in politics. To listen to  John Kennedy, one may think that of course, the teacher pension problem is about poor planning. Then again, that may not be a flaw but a feature. He writes for the West Michigan Policy Forum:

It’s simple math. Today’s vastly underfunded teacher pension systems are not good for our teachers or students. Twenty years ago our state teacher retirement plan was fully funded, but due to poor financial planning assumptions and not meeting the annual funding requirement, there is now a shortfall of least $29 billion.

Here’s where amnesia takes over: twenty years ago the Engler administration raided the teacher pension fund as part of Prop A. Under that same plan, the Engler administration also shifted responsibility for increases in pensions to the local districts. The raid destabilized the funds and the cost shift meant that districts came into fiscal risk while simultaneously losing money to effectively teach their children.

And to spell this out completely: John Engler enjoyed some of his most significant support from the Republican party of W Michigan. This crisis is almost entirely one of their own making.

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Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , , , ,

Senator Milquetoast

It’s good that U.S. Senator Gary Peters has spoken out against the President’s anti-immigration Executive Order. But sadly, the voice is muffled.

“As a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Armed Services Committees, my top priority is ensuring we’re doing everything we can to keep Americans safe. But I am also proud to represent vibrant Muslim and Arab American communities that are integral to Michigan’s culture and our economy.

The first sentence is pure political muffery: “my top priority… doing everything… keep Americans safe.” What is missing is a clear point of view, what he (or his office) thinks. The second sentence is little better: he’s “proud to represent.” yeah yeah yeah. This is indirect speech, at a distant from a straight forward presentation of the case.

There are big, legitimate issues of national security involved. This is the natural forceful lead. And it’s powerful, as Mother Jones demonstrates.

In the second paragraph Sen. Peters compounds his wishy-washiness.

“One of America’s founding – and most sacred – principles is the freedom of religion. I am extremely alarmed by President Trump’s executive order that effectively implements a religious test for those seeking to enter the United States…

The shift to First Amendment issues has a nice ring to it, but again one may ask whether it demonstrates a grasp of the actual Constitutional issues involved with the Executive Order. If anything the focus on Freedom of Religion plays into the cultural push of the President’s order, namely that of privileging Christian America. Immediate feedback from Trump supporters indicates their approval of the action. So rather than change opinion the appeal to the First is a sign of political boundary making. It is a lost opportunity.

And then finally there is a return to muffery with the final sentence:

 “While I support continued strengthening of the refugee screening process, I remain opposed to the suspension of the refugee admissions program.”

This is the sound of a man trying to have it both ways. “While I….” Oh, be direct. Know what time it is, and what the issues are. In the days ahead the battle needs far more direct, far clearer expression of ideas. Now is no time to waffle.

— Originally published at Written and Noted.

 

 

Filed under: Michigan, Washington, , , ,

Betsy DeVos, Michigan’s finest

A friend writes on Facebook:

“But what I do know is that she’s smart, committed to kids, and a mainstream conservative Republican.” I think that we need to question how mainstream she is given who she is associating herself with. Also, is she committed to kids or to privatization? Another question.

Any one who has clashed with Betsy DeVos knows what kind of Republican she is, she is moneyed,  partisan. and close to the center of Michigan politics, if not in fact one of its main movers. So  “mainstream” is altogether reasonable given where the GOP is these days. There are several aspects of this mainstream Republican that bear on educational policy, that in fact have given such heartburn: there’s the preference for the private solution, at least so far as services are considered — and urban education falls into that category; and then there’s the no tax dogma which again seeks to hamstring social spending generally by pitting services against each other, a process that at once short-changes retirees, yet refuses to raise funds. This has bred considerable trouble for our State.
Here is where privatization of schools takes shape. From her past actions, Betsy DeVos  push for privatization is  a combination of private school advocacy and triage of the urban school. Charters basically began as a way of addressing the urban schools, their administration and teacher corps — both being perceived as intrinsically hostile to GOP interests (this is Engler c. 1998), and manifestly failing. This failure drives the larger push for educational reform. And it is a fair question to ask (as do the conservatives): Must the kids in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids  have their future cut short simply because of where they live and go to school?  That’s the big question that the Charter-ists have been trying to address. One can read the current reform efforts of Grand Rapids Superintendent Neal as a direct response to this problem. Those who care about schools and our cities know that something needs to be done.
 
To this, DeVos and other conservatives also bring the voucher. This is a sort of triage: the very best get a private education, the middle gets charters, and the rest? well sucks to be you. And of course the middle class (white) suburbs also get a benefit. That the charter payments are lower than the state grants only adds to the benefits: the charter provides the “reform” while taking the requirement to meet educational goals off the plate. Lansing gets cheaper schools and less accountability laid at its doorstep — it’s now someone else’s problem. Disadvantage the city, reward the suburb: classic GOP policy.
 
Of course, the unions are right to be so oppositional. Betsy has been their foe directly for at least 15 years, 20 if you add in the Engler years. The movement to educational reform was not simply to meet the needs of the city (something of an afterthought, actually, having to wait until Pres. George W Bush came by with No Child Left Behind), its goal was to break the power of the teacher unions for a generation. In Michigan the job was made all the easier by a longstanding cultural hostility that had persistently underfunded schools — a  residue of manufacturing era.
 
Then there is the darker secret behind the DeVos/Republican agenda, that it fed on the racial animosity and segregation that so profoundly shaped Detroit’s regional politics. In this politics, any attempt to help kids in the urban setting (and especially Detroit) was seen as coming out of the pockets of the middle class (white) suburbs.In effect, the DeVos led reforms envision two systems of schools: one for the poor (the charters, with income for GOP supporters), and another, the regular schools of aspiration and achievement, te schools of GOP supporters. This two-track model is the problem, but that is for another day. For now, thanks to tax cuts, Michigan’s educational problems have metastasized so  that we have educational dysfunction across the state. By refusing to address the question of revenue the DeVos/Republican approach has cut short the possibility of real reform or achievement, and threatened the schools of its supporters. This is less a problem of privatization than of neglect and the ironic turning to Washington to help out. Betsy DeVos may yet help clean up Michigan’s mess.

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , ,

A Muffled Voice

There’s a voice coming from the political closet: Michigan’s moderate Republicans. To hear what it’s saying (and understand the problems of Michigan’s GOP)  look no further than a recent ad from Donnijo DeJonge.

She’s pissed (or at least trying to be — this is the election season, after all). Winnie Brinks is a liar, or at least her allies are lying about who and what Ms DeJonge stands for:

Winnie claims I support the tax on pensions. This is a lie. I have never said I supported the pension tax. In fact, I support a reduction in the income tax and with that the repeal of the pension tax. I support fair and efficient tax policy. I support reducing the tax burden for hardworking Michigan families.

One can understand the confusion here. DeJonge’s web page is silent on issues of any kind. Nor was the pension tax  mentioned in the candidate profile. Then again, others would point to the interview with the MLive editorial board. Let’s just say that on pensions, it was awkward:

“You can call it a hike in tax. What I call it is making tax policy fair (by taxing pension and 401(k) income the same).”

So what’s going on here?

Brutally, some part may simply be lying. The pension tax attack has got traction and so Republicans of all sorts have to adjust, no matter what the paper trail says. It’s the old story of “I was for it before I was against it.”

DeJonge, however, is rather smarter than that, and certainly more principled. Her core positioning has been that of taking the high ground, and in that light, her words are something of a gaffe. Of course, the fiscal conservative (now) knows, the program of Gov. Rick Snyder to shift the tax burden to the individual tax payer was wrong. It was wrong, but she (and other moderate Republicans) can’t put the policy at the Governor’s feet. It was wrong, but they are unwilling to place it at the feet of their corporate benefactors.

And it may be personally wrong: an idea held once in good faith, but now exposed. Repentance can be a good thing.

There’s more. It’s not just the repeal of the pension tax, it is also the reduction of the income tax. Whether the Democratic “middle class taxpayer” or the Republican “hardworking Michigan family” the point is the same; Michigan citizens need their taxes reduced. DeJonge’s problems (and those of the moderate GOP) compound: to reduce the burden on the taxpayer means raising taxes somewhere else, or cutting programs somewhere else. And what are those trade-offs?

For a professor of public finance, the silence is hardly golden. She certainly knows the trade-offs. Then why the silence? What keeps her in the closet? Is it fear of the political powers? Is it a sort of magical thinking where some unforeseen event rescues? Is it perhaps simply the dissonance between their economic shibboleths and the impact on people’s lives?

Painful as it is, this dissonance brings some good news to the moderate faction: they still have a heart. What they lack is a voice. They know the truth; it is time to come out.

Filed under: Elections, Michigan, Republican Folly, , , , , , , ,

Revenge of RTW

For a measure “with no organized opposition” as the press would have it, Prop 1 has sure stirred up the activist community. Until very recently, most of the opposition was through the com boxes at Michigan Radio or at the Bridge. There, one could almost see the opposition coalescing, with talking points emerging, links to the relevant analyses expounded, and a growing conviction that this was more about special interests than With the election tomorrow, it is useful to locate where the opposition to Prop 1 lies.

Overtly, the opposition has focused on what are essentially unfunded aspects, the $500 million finally needed, repurposed from expiration of business tax credits. The non-partisan Citizens Research Council summarizes the impact thus

The reimbursement provisions contained in the package are not cheap, and the State of Michigan will forego an increasing amount of its general fund/general purpose revenue in future years in order to hold local governments harmless from the PPT reforms.

But the approach of lost opportunity costs, or even of the independent authority that is part of the measure as implemented per Public Act 80 — even this does not quite capture the emotional quality of the objection. For some it is ambivalence as to the substance but a caution about the vagueness of the drafting of the proposal. Elsewhere it is a more direct distrust of the Legislature. This is even true of those who modestly favor the measure as the best of a bad deal. As one elected official in that camp expressed it

local governments (and those of us who utilize their services) are significantly screwed if this doesn’t pass and it goes back to Lansing. I have no confidence that they will come up with anything close to this.

Whether as ambivalence or distrust the common theme is that of wariness. And for others it is a far sharper sense.

The Legislature and the Governor (and to a certain extent their corporate backers such as the Chamber) are seen as not trustworthy. The validation and championing of the measure by  Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer and  cities up and down the state gain little traction. And that lack of traction almost certainly rests with the lame duck session of 2012.

The possibility of bipartisanship had existed with a tacit agreement that the Governor would establish certain fundamental limits to the actions of the staunch Right. It came with an implied agreement that Democrats would be willing to join in some of the Governor’s proposals over against the staunch Right. It was as much a commitment about process and voice as it was over content.

The RTW legislation upended that. Decisively. It was a victory, however, that came at a price of alienation. The vote for Prop 1 appears to be a ratification of the very coalition that won RTW (and proclaimed it, too, as job creating measure). The business community gains, but the tax burden shifts to the individual tax payer.

There are few places where voters can really voice their displeasure at the corporate mindedness that has dominated state government for the past for years. Prop 1 gives them just that opportunity.

 

 

Filed under: Elections, Michigan, , , , , , , ,

Is that all there is?

I suppose we can put this in the “Laugh or Cry?” box, but earlier this month Rep. Tom Hooker (R-Byron Center) announced his priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Ban Planned Parenthood.

“One of the things that I was very focused on was our taxpayers paying for Planned Parenthood clinics around the state of Michigan. I believe that my constituents are not happy that their tax dollars are going for that organization. At least, the majority of my constituents aren’t. I’m a pro-life social conservative. I don’t believe we’re going to have success as a state financially until we get our social issues in line. Obviously, if we’re killing babies we’re not going to be blessed as a state fiscally.”

We can admire a man of principles, but this does come up short, given  a state that needs to rebuild its roads, or a state government planning substantial reform of its schools.

On one level, this set of priorities suggests a confusion of campaigning and governing. Thus, issues that motivate voting come to the top of legislative issues. Practically, what Rep. Hooker has done is  to declare himself a reliable vote for the Republican majority. Now while that will please the people of his district, the decision nonetheless robs the people of Byron Center of input. By putting passion before politics, he has opened a gap between the people of his district and Lansing.

While everyone wants a team player, we also want a player who will participate, help shape the policies and legislation of the state. The people even of an archly conservative district deserve a legislator who puts Michigan first.

And here our representative is a sign of the current move of anti-politics. Rather than being concerned with the common good, politics is reduced to a matter of personal conviction. It’s theatre. The point of politics is not to go and vote one’s convictions, but to go and with others plot a better path for the State. The preference for moral stances, good as they may be, is a sort of anti-politics, even the denial of the political solution itself.

 

Filed under: Michigan, Republican Folly, , ,

Pure Folly

On one level, you couldn’t really blame them. It seemed like such a natural: a chance to do the victory lap and reinforce the Michigan brand.

So they put it up for all to see, there in the Wall Street Journal: Pure Michigan, now RTW.

rtw_pure_fullad

And really, who can blame them? The Pure Michigan campaign has created a solid brand for the State. Why not use it, then, to piggyback an emotional punch to the political? As brand experts have been pulling out their hair in protest, such a move lacks strategic and economic sense. It is sloppy and it puts Michigan’s second industry, tourism, at risk.

On one hand the cost of the ad, the brag of  $144,000 is more a vanity than a pitch and so unlikely to generate much business. Certainly the numbers look that way. By its own accounting, the Pure Michigan has generated a billion in new business. In contrast, what does the direct RTW pitch get its backers?  Perhaps not a lot, if we look at Indiana, certainly not anything on the order of the billion dollar revenue. To the extent that such a stunt jeopardizes the larger, successful campaign, it can hardly be called wise.

But are things really in that sort of danger?

In making Right to Work a business calling card it brands the state as surely as the tourism campaign. As with all partisanship, this political edginess gets in the way of the State’s competition for tourist dollars. It’s a conundrum, the more successful the State is in establishing this partisan identity  the more it risks alienating a portion of the market. Some will find the right wing turn sufficiently distasteful and so spend those dollars elsewhere. This degrading represents a real business risk.

Now this risk will ease over time, but not entirely. Had MEDC kept the campaign separate, it could negotiate the partisan blowback with continuing with tourism advertising. After all it works with the white sands of Alabama and Texas. And here is  the real problem with the RTW/Pure Michigan play: it creates a disincentive with the audience while at the same time robbing the tourism bureau of one of its tools.

Finally, if RTW is the game-changer they claim, that it changes the “product” so to speak, then it would be far better to craft a distinctive advertising message of its own. Here the ad reveals the ambiguity Lansing. Is this really a game changer, per the advocates? Or something like business as usual? How big is the rift? That Lansing and MEDC would turn to the Pure Michigan theme suggests a viewpoint that believes this will not be a move of continuity rather than disruption. It is a view of hope and unwarranted optimism.

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , , , ,

Code Breaking?

It sounds so innocent. Even noble. In today’s editorial from the  Grand Rapids Press, Dave Murray writes

(Governor Rick Snyder) also believes that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by his or her ZIP code.

Embracing an “any time, any place, any way and any pace” philosophy, the plan removes district “ownership” of a student, allowing them to take a course, some courses or all their courses from any districts. That includes the growing use of online courses.

With a bill of 300 pages there are bound to be some issues as well a host of potentially unintended consequences, with none bigger, perhaps than the illusion that this is somehow going to crack the zip code.

Still, one does not dismiss the matter of online education. The emergence of MOOCs suggests the way that higher education and likely secondary education will be substantially transformed. But if this is the way, then the questions of accountability and outcomes necessarily follow.

But that’s only a start. Just as critical would be the deal breakers.

Deal breaker 1. Zip Code.  Schools can opt out of the program. In fact with this option, zip code would still determine who gets what kind of education. A set of elite suburban districts would keep their programs while everyone else is in the other pool. Non-participation and presumably continued funding allows such districts to effectively to go their separate way. Zip code becomes destiny. And an unhappy one at that.

Deal breaker 2. Funding. If education follows the student, this puts an emphasis on equal funding. Leave aside whether such a measure violates Prop A, in the context of the present Legislature, equal funding almost certainly means less funding.

Deal breaker 3. Local Control. If funding flows with the student, local communities surrender most effective control of their school, how then do they escape being creatures of Lansing rather than of  local voters? Where local voters and communities lose the ability to meaningfully supervise their schools, local democracy of the right and left loses out.

Deal breaker 4. (Non) Transparency. Lastly,  the proposed expansion of educational services, raises the question of what reporting mechanisms are to be installed. This is both a matter of fiscal control, but also of educational priorities, too. Without transparency we end up with self-dealing. Or the too-easy settling for low expectations. Both would set our State back.

The deep irony of this bill (at least for conservatives) is how it would impose the very sort of educational structures they so often rail against: control from Lansing, funding from Lansing, and the local community shut out. Before they get too giddy with their electoral powerWould lack of transparency be a deal breaker?

Finally, the question that should be asked is how these efforts will produce the educated workforce Michigan needs in the next decade. The Press’s proper role is to ask such questions in order to clarify the legislation and to lay the proper foundation for reform and vibrant local schools.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

Education on the Cheap

The saga continues at what was once Muskegon Heights Public Schools.

Last year the school district ran into a rather nasty fiscal storm and collapsed. Several factors were at work. First its industrial base — the original rationale for the district in the first place — had disappeared. Without a strong industrial base, the non-homestead tax simply lagged. Then came the recession, with its slashing of state budgets, and the disappearance or roughly a third of the total school population. Without an economic cushion, with cutbacks from Lansing and a shrunken population it’s no wonder the district went into fiscal shock.

Perhaps some sort of smart management could have rescued it in time, but the pull of pride and tradition often push us away from making the tough choices that would otherwise save us. In a larger context, the problem MHPS  is simply that it was too small. Its size left it without the flexibility needed to navigate the difficult waters. MHPS is not alone. There are plenty of school districts throughout the region structured the same way: built on a single piece of heavy industry, they began as an offshoot from the larger school districts in the area. Or they were rural districts that decided to keep their ways. In either case, they are exposed to significant economic risk. Their small boats not suited for the larger storms.

The decision to turn to a charter system, to in effect declare bankruptcy, is perhaps the only answer available. And as with bankruptcies everywhere, the workers take the hit.

As MLive reports,   the new financial plan provides an average teacher salary of $35,000. Possible incentive pay may raise that to roughly $40,000, depending on how the money is delivered. Some minimal provision is made for healthcare, as well. The technology budget is another shock: $10,000 for four buildings. Even if one tosses out the young el building, that still leaves little more than $3000 per building. What exactly gets purchased with that?

Two comments seem important: low wages can be overcome with a high sense of mission. This has been the secret heart of many urban schools as it is, at MHPS the mission-offset will get a full test. The second obvious impact will be the higher turnover. Under-resourced schools and low pay do count. There’s every reason to expect significant turnover with its attendant costs to students and educational continuity.

And lastly, it cannot be stressed enough: this is what poverty means for our students. Muskegon Heights desperately needs the economic recovery in region. Desperately. It cannot do this on its own. Even now, merger may be the end game

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

The Principle of Principals

It’s hardly likely that only two percent of principals in Michigan are ineffective, as Dave Murray’s headline would have it.. Educational outcomes alone suggest the number is higher. Instead we are treated to what can best be described as a Lake Woebegone effect, where everyone is above average, or as Muskegon superintendent Jon Felske put it, “playing it safe.”

However, the numbers hide the real story here, namely that of the new role for principals generally. After all, principals have been the missing link when it comes to reform. We have gone off track in reform efforts in part because we keep looking at the year-to-year aspects without considering the larger picture. There are five areas where sound leadership can play an important role:

  1. Continuity. The educational product is multi-year in nature. The principal provides the visible continuity of effort from year to year.
  2. Team work.  Teaching itself is a team effort — one teacher passes along the class to another, the common success of teachers depends on everyone doing their jobs.  Each classroom may be a small kingdom, but each is linked. The principal coaches, helps facilitate the team.
  3. Environment.  We know that school environments themselves can play a crucial role in creating the safe places where students can thrive. Again, the principal is the one who leads the teaching staff, the support team and parents in creating and maintaining that environment.
  4. Connection. The principal is the face of the school with the parents. When Parents (single or intact) have a strong connection with the school, their children do better.
  5. Face Time. And finally, as a matter of gearing, the leadership team in a school can help the building deal with other institutional and community stakeholders; they’re the face.

Leadership is critical for all these tasks. The principal is not simply an administrator — in the best schools in fact, you may even have a split leadership: one for operations (academic leadership, team coaching and the like), and one for the executive functions (i.e. dealing with the community, the stakeholders, the district administration).

If we are to have strong principals, we will need to have better development programs, and at the least, some sort of standard judging template to help them fulfill their critical function. It also turns attention to the role of our graduate programs in educational leadership. This is perhaps an opportunity.

 

Cross posted at Written and Noted.

Filed under: Education Policy, Horace Mann, Michigan, , , , ,

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