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Education for Michigan kids: Their future, and ours

The other day I was on a panel with Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, talking about Michigan’s future.

We’ve done this a couple of times recently. I think some of the people who show up are looking for some sort of liberal-conservative food fight, and go away surprised that we are in as much agreement as we are over a lot of issues. Oh, there is a lot we disagree on.

I would raise income taxes on those who are working, rather than cut education; Nolan thinks that would end up costing jobs.   But we mostly agree on what is wrong with the state—we need a lot more jobs and a more diverse economy.

And we need a far better educated workforce. Trouble is you can’t get jobs without educated workers, and the real problem is, how do we get them?

Do we try to encourage as many charter schools as possible, especially in places where the public schools are not working?

Do we try to prop up public schools? To what extent do you impose statewide standards? I have more theories than answers. But one thing both Nolan and I and most real experts agree on is this:

By the time kids start kindergarten, it may be too late, if their brains haven’t been properly stimulated.

If they haven’t been read to, for example. There’s a major flaw in a lot of education plans out there—they nearly always depend heavily on parental involvement. Which is a nice idea.

But in many cases and many families, there are no parents, just “DNA donors” who are absent or, if around, are anything but a positive role model. If you grow up in an environment where your mother is a drug-using teenager herself, your chances for success are probably close to non-existent.

And there are thousands and thousands of children, who arrive in substandard public schools ill-equipped to compete with other children, doomed to slip further and further behind.

Eventually, they stop going to school, whether they have a diploma or not. What is clear is that there are no  good paying jobs for them in the modern economy -- nor will there be. Not legal ones, anyway. We’ve just finished ending welfare as we knew it. What are these people going to do? How will they live?

Can we really afford to have a large and largely unemployable underclass in our state? You know the answer as well as I do; of course we can’t. But such a class exists, and is growing, and there are never going to be any jobs on the line for them again.

This may just be the biggest crisis facing us, and we don’t know what to do about it. It is something we should be thinking and talking about all the time. Yet few of us seem very worried, and too many say simply, “we can’t afford it.”

I would say whatever the cost, we can’t afford not to. That is, if we still think of ourselves as one people, with common shared hopes, whose futures are dependent on our mutual successes.

Otherwise, well, those who can afford to might want to head for their gated communities. I think we owe it to ourselves to do better.

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