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If Michigan continues to ignore its schools, the state will continue to fall behind

Jack Lessenberry

The bottom line, Phil Power told me recently, is that our future is all about the schools.

Power isn’t exactly a wild and crazy left-wing radical. He ran for the U.S. Senate once as a moderate Democrat nearly 40 years ago, but lost the primary to a fellow named Carl Levin.

Since then, he has been a largely non-partisan moderate. For most of his career, he was a very successful suburban newspaper publisher.

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Eleven years ago, he sold his company, and started The Center for Michigan, which he calls a “think and do tank,” aimed at crafting and selling sensible bipartisan and nonpartisan solutions for this state.

He told me at the time, “I’ll be damned if I was going to go to Florida and watch the state I love go to hell.”

So he’s been doing his best to do something.

For years now, the Center has held “community conversations” to find out what’s on people’s minds and bring them together; he’s also started an online magazine called Bridge, which consistently has been doing some of the best journalism in the state.

But these days, Power, now 78, is especially concerned about education. He writes a weekly column, which appears not only in Bridge but a bunch of newspapers.

This week he began by saying:

“It’s way past time to start thinking seriously -- very seriously – about what we’re going to do about Michigan schools. “

He lays out the stark facts.

School performance in Michigan is falling behind other states, something confirmed recently by both the Education Trust-Midwest, and the U.S. Department of Education. The Education Trust found, as Power reported, that Michigan “is already in the bottom 10 states for fourth-grade literacy and math.”

... since 1979, Michigan has increased spending on prisons more than five times faster than it did on public education

If nothing changes, within a decade and a half, it predicts we will be the third worst state in the country in overall school performance. The reason why isn’t hard to find.

Just last week, Power reports, the U.S. Department of Education reported that since 1979, Michigan has increased spending on prisons more than five times faster than it did on public education. Nothing like that was true of any other major state.

“Most humiliating of all,” Power wrote, “Michigan also increased spending on education less than any other state in the nation.”

Phil Power, who I have known well for more than a decade, is something of an economic conservative who isn’t that close to the unions.

But he thinks the idea that student performance has no relation to how much we spend on education is nonsense. He spent more than a decade as a regent of his beloved University of Michigan, and his Center has been a key force pressing successfully for more money for early childhood development.

...we have managed to create a system that "blurs responsibility and eliminates accountability."

 Power attributes a large share of the blame to the “chaotic and disorganized structure,” of education in this state, and makes a compelling case that we have managed to create a system that “blurs responsibility and eliminates accountability.”

He knows, as we all should, that this has to change if our state and our children are to have any future.

Whether we are willing to elect and support leaders who are willing to make the tough decisions needed to get us there is another story.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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