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Commentary: The education dilemma

Michigan Radio does an interesting occasional series called Issues and Ale, in which those who know something about a particular public policy get together with citizens in a relaxed setting to discuss things that really matter. Last night we held one on “The Future of Public Education” in an improv theatre in the city of Ferndale, which I thought was an excellent choice.

Ferndale is an older, working-class Detroit suburb which has been a distinct community since the 1920s. Times are not what were, and the city has shrunk over the years to about 20,000 people. Ferndale has become somewhat well-known over the last two decades for its welcoming of the gay and LGBT communities, who have done much to revitalize neighborhoods and the city’s downtown.

But Ferndale also has a dedicated group of parents very concerned with education, their kids’ futures, and want to make sure their children are getting what they need to succeed.

Some of them were present at the discussion last night, which included John Bebow, the CEO of a non-partisan think tank called the Center for Michigan, Shawna Groulx, a young assistant principal from Durand, and David Zeman, an award-winning journalist now with the Education Trust Midwest, which is dedicated to helping all kids learn, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I had the privilege of being the moderator, which means that I got to focus on what was on the minds of both the panelists and the audience. And I think I got considerable insight as to the nature of the problem.

To my mild surprise, the audience seemed to consist more of teachers and those who worked in the education community than of parents, though many of them had children at well.

They aren’t happy with what has been going on in Lansing with education -- the budget cuts, and what sometimes seems to be a war on teachers’ benefits, and I sympathize.

But I also got some insight into why they are having a hard time getting their message across. Nearly all of them spoke in education jargon, heavy with acronyms and names of programs, some of which I had never heard.

The Center for Michigan’s Bebow aptly noted that much of what we think of as debates about education are really debates about adult concerns, like teacher benefits. 

The main focus last night was supposed to be on the “public’s agenda for public education,” something that we know more about than we used to, thanks to a comprehensive study the Center released in January. The report itself is fascinating.

Most parents aren’t as excited about “school choice” as the politicians. They are skeptical of online education. But they want students to learn better. They would be cautiously willing to spend more on education, but only if it would get the job done

To me, there seems to be a clear disconnect between the public and both our lawmakers and the education community, who are off fighting a separate war.

There is one glimmer of hope:  Widely accepted data has persuaded the politicians that spending more money on early childhood development makes a difference, and they are doing that.

Now, we need someone to make a similar strong case for other areas where Michigan is so dangerously continuing to fall behind.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry 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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