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

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, , , , ,

That Hoekstra Dog Whistle

Bad ads are rarely an accident. Quite the contrary, sometimes the things most offensive are the very things most planned. Ask GoDaddy. Or perhaps Peter Hoekstra.

Hoekstra’s infamous  Asian-bashing xenophobic Super Bowl ad went viral, receiving mention in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and countless other blogs (including those in China). A disaster. And now it’s pulled — a mercy death, surely. Still, it deserves an autopsy, in part because in examining the corpse, we we may be able to see something of the thinking of the Hoekstra campaign and its electoral strategy.

After all, this is a Michigan MBA, the former vice-president of marketing at Herman Miller, a smart guy. So just what was he thinking?

Her Lips say Finance but Her Eyes say Jobs

Advertising works on two levels: there is the direct cognitive message, charged with the main marketing points; then wrapping it are the associations created by allusions, the visuals, the manner of presentation.  This latter makes another unspoken argument.  When these two go together the effect can be can be quite powerful, as Ronald Reagan’s  Morning in America ad demonstrates. The twin message paths also lure political advertisers to create ads with two messages, a nominal message and a “dog whistle” inside message created for some subset of the audience.

And the two message approach seems to be the approach of the Hoekstra ad.

On the face of it (and in subsequent ads, here) Hoekstra goes after Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) spending, positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. This is actually boring and forgettable. The images, the emotional vehicle is something else again.

The “dog whistle” is about jobs.

For all the mocking tone of our debt to China, in Michigan the issue of the economy is less that of finance than of manufacturing. The story of the past decade is the near-death of domestic auto manufacturing, the loss of 800,000 jobs from GM alone; a story of shuttered factories, faltering communities, and nation-leading unemployment.

It goes to the gut.

And that seems to be what  Hoekstra was looking to do: a two-fer.  Nominally, this was going to be an ad about Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) ways and positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. A good message for the managerial suburbs like those of eastern Kent County or Oakland County. Underneath, in visuals a different emotional message was going to be told, one aimed at the working class suburbs of Muskegon, Wyoming, Downriver or  Macomb County.

In looking at the presentation of this appeal, we can see the subset Hoekstra was hoping to reach. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Shape of Things to Come

As sure as robin in spring, the hiring of Census workers can only mean one thing: time to again contemplate carving up the political landscape.  And really, nothing is quite so delicious.  Especially in Michigan with likely loss of at least one congressional seat.  A whole new set of winners and losers is ready to be created.

And of the first maps out, is that from Menhen, at Swing State Project. There’s plenty of discussion on the proposal on state-wide aspects, here.  For those on the west side of the state, things get especially interesting.  The second district (Hoekstra) becomes the Ehlers seat, with urbanized Kent County (Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, East Grand Rapids) replacing Ottawa County.  Meanwhile, the Third now becomes the “Hoekstra” home, packing together Ottawa, Allegan, Van Buren and about 40 percent of Kent).

Even were the arrangement not prove workable, it nonetheless can be considered as very useful  sort of thought experiment.

Here is how the district gets drawn:

If the map looks familiar, it should: this is essentially the same redistricting solution used for assigning  State Senate seats in he county.  So the 29th (Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood) includes Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Cascade and some exurb/rural townships to the east.  The rest of Kent County becomes the 28th (Mark Jansen, R-Gaines) surrounding the 29th  like a “C.”  Same topology here in the congressional redesign.

As a Kent County partisan this division can look problematic, especially as the region wrestles with issues of development and of educational equality.  These are contentious enough as it is; this political division could serve to increase the distances between cities and suburbs in ways that work against its best interest.  Indeed, practically speaking, this may be the real point of difficulty for any such plan: both parties maintain real interest in controlling their own destiny, as they have to date.  Thus, the pressure will be to vote for a unified Kent County.

Muskegon and Grand Rapids go together

This is perhaps the most obvious direction that redistricting will take if the Democratic party can control the process.  A District with both Muskegon and Grand Rapids in it would raise the core urban issues with much greater force.   Minorities gain voice.  The experience of representation in Grand Rapids demonstrates how urban issues can sway even otherwise conservative representatives.  That these two cities are also two bastions of Democratic strength in the region makes this a natural combination for Democrats.

Strength in numbers for Kent County

At first,  the division of Kent County looks counter-intuitive to the region’s interest.  Yet, as in the State Senate such an arrangement can potentially  serve to expand and extend the region’s clout.  This will be its great appeal to those engaged in regional planning.  The  risk is no less obvious: potentially the County could not be represented at all, and civic leadership would then have to depend on outsiders, an awkward situation if for no other reason than pride.

A look at raw numbers suggests that this worst case scenario may not be as likely as some fear.

In a Grand Rapids – Muskegon district, Kent County would continue to provide something close to two-thirds of the total vote, thereby making the region a natural home base.  For the new 3rd, things are a little more dicey.  Suburban/exurban Kent County would contribute approximately 40% of the base to the new district, and more importantly be home to some of the deepest Party pockets.   The centripetal pull of fundraising will keep any candidate close to the heart of Kent County.  And likely as not, also be a resident , as well.

likely provide a candidate for the seat.  The result for regional planning would be two members of congress tightly identified with the interests of Kent County.  This would be an improvement from the present situation.

In terms of selling redistricting plan such as this, the potential doubled representation from Kent County will rank high.

The 86th lives

On the Republican side, the plan would mirror the present division in the Kent County party, between the social conservatives  on the west — the party of the Lands, Voorhees, and generally Ottawa County; and the economic, leaning to libertarian conservatives of the east — this is the party of Ada and Amway, and also of Justin Amash.   As in te Democratic Party, the division between east and west is present and active, here best thought of as that of Ada and Grandville.

The present weakened state of the Kent County party not only has left a number of local Republican party members shaking their heads, but has been increasing the rumblings below deck.  As the national party tilts toward and ideological purity, the battle will almost certainly intensify between the economic and the social conservatives.  This division is already present in State House 86, encompassing the social conservatism of Walker and the economic leadership of  Ada Township.  The redistricted 3rd invites a similar sort of battle line.  A civil war among the GOP is not necessarily in the Democrats best interest; such a civil war is as likely to result in the ideological pure winning.  A region where the pure win promises less in terms of the deelopment the region requires for its long-term growth.

Notes on Weaknesses

Such a plan as this is bold,  but some obvious drawbacks do need to be mentioned.

  1. A district that cuts out the money powers from downtown is going to have some difficulty getting through.  Perhaps the region is at the cusp of really going metropolitan, but for many there still remains the hegemonic ideal: a unified political-social-philanthropic culture. This sense of the region as a region extends across party lines. It is not at all obvious that even a Democrat in the 29th State Senate seat would go along with a plan that fractures the congressional seat.
  2. Redistricting plans are better when they follow existing patterns of political or socio-economic organization.  What ever the virtues the partisan gains from a redistrciting plan such as this, it remains far more useful to have the congressional district and the metrolpolitan area(s) correspond with one another.  The questions of recovery and development that are likely to be ours in West Michigan ask for pragmatic leadership.

    Thus, while a Muskegon-Grand Rapids axis makes sense, being part of the same SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area).  The northern lakeshore counties share a different set of problems.  Representation that follows basic economic interests is simply going to be more efficient in helping those interests and communities deal with Washington.

  3. Lastly, on practical terms, a revised Muskegon-Grand Rapids district ought to naturally incude Newaygo. Newaygo has become part of the west Michigan metro area.  For the same reason, Ionia ought also to be part of a west Michigan congressional district.

The plan from Swing State Project is not the first to imagine the shape of things to come, but it does begin a useful conversation on how we can better structure our communities for better representation, and continued economic development.

Filed under: Elections, Politics, , , ,

Weekend Redistricting Playroom

One of the better ways to understand Reform Michigan Government Now! is to look at the county by county impact of its redistricting.  Here is an Excel worksheet for your amusement, with counties listed from most Democratic to least.  In between (clear background) are the Swing Districts.  And what bounces up immediately is the presence of Macomb and Oakland counties. As noted before, redistricting in those counties alone would be enough to meet the criteria of the proposal.  A little more tweaking, and one can start splitting up the state.  Practically speaking, it means the outposts in Kent, Muskegon and Manistee would all be swamped in any GOP plan,  and a generation of work gets lost

Filed under: Elections, , , , ,


August 2020