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Skunk works: Lifting the curtain on a secret, controversial education work-group in Lansing

This week on It’s Just Politics, we delve into a secret project dubbed “skunk works.” The name means a project done in secret, usually to get something complex or controversial done quickly, without getting mucked up in organizational bureaucracy.

Skunkworks: A History

The name is actually trademarked by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Lockheed’s Skunk Works was created to handle aircraft projects that needed to be wrapped up quickly during World War II. Now, jump ahead almost 70 years, and it was revealed last week by The Detroit News that Michigan has recently had its own skunk works project. But this time: education rather than aircrafts.

Skunkworks Closer to Home

The group involved members of Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and was led by Richard McLellan, a well-known attorney in Lansing known as a Republican deal-maker and conjurer of political plots.

Governor Snyder had already asked McLellan to devise a plan to revamp Michigan’s school funding system. But Skunkworks was a separate operation. This plan was to create a string of low-cost charter schoolsauthorized by a tribal community college with statewide reach. The group involved in the plan did not include the education lobby – teachers’ unions, administrators and school boards.

McLellan was the one who tagged the project “skunk works" (a name we’re pretty sure he has come to regret) and in an email that was leaked to The Detroit News, he details what the project was about. Education lobbyists saw this as a plot to undercut them and create a new pipeline of charters competing for school funding. These schools would be middle and high schools, something that would be ground-breaking as charter operators typically don’t run middle and high schools. That’s because they tend to be more expensive than elementary schools (they have to pay for things like chemistry labs and big gyms).

Education Lobby None Too Pleased

When the Lansing education lobby found about this – they cried foul at not being part of the discussions, especially ones involving people so close to the governor. One of Governor Snyder’s political brands has always been the ‘hands-on CEO” so, it’s interesting to note that the governor distanced himself from the group pretty quickly after it was made public.

“The main point of what I took out of it, because I haven’t spent time looking at or talking to them…,” the governor tried to explain but, to some, it seemed more like that character from Hogan's Heroes, the one who pretends not to really know what’s going on right in front of him, “I see nothing… I know nothing… I was not here… I did not even get up this morning.”

Much Ado About Nothing?

So, this raises the question: just how big of a deal is this skunk works group. Supporters will say, “Hey, so what? Big deal. Some people got together to bat around some ideas on education reform and saving money. What’s the problem?” In fact, work groups are commonly used in Lansing – under both Republicans and Democrats – to develop policy away from prying eyes.

But, what’s interesting to note is the fact that education lobbyists were specifically excluded from skunk works. This speaks to the atmosphere of distrust at and around the Capitol. We certainly cannot forget the lingering hangover from last December when the governor suddenly changed his tune on right to work. The governor and Republican leaders unveiled the legislation in the morning one day last December and it was voted on that afternoon without any hearings and it was all wrapped up in less than a week. There’s a sense - the word paranoid is a little strong, but just a little – among some Democrats that if Republicans did it once they could do it again.

So, now, after a week of skunk works controversy, McLellan has disassociated himself from the group. In fact, it’s been made “official” and is now moving over to the state Department of Education. Its mission has been diluted however, to just look at using technology to reduce schools costs.

It’s probably safe to say, the real mission: to push this controversy into the political mists.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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