In a 1963 speech, the novelist Ralph Ellison once said, “Education is all a matter of building bridges, it seems to me.” It seems that way to us, too, as 13 Republicans and Democrats will work throughout the summer on possible education reforms that may be coming up for consideration as soon as this fall. In no small part because of the political — and far too often partisan — back-and-forth that has been germinated in Lansing in recent months over state aid for education, reform proposals for schools and teachers and organized labor, and the like, we hope the baker’s dozen of state lawmakers will emerge with honest, bipartisan ways to improve the way Michigan’s children learn, the way Michigan’s schools operate and deliver their all-too-important product, and the way the state puts a premium on the quality of education received by those who are arguably our most important residents: Our children.
State Rep. Bill Rogers (R-Milford), who chairs the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee, is co-chairing the workgroup of 13 lawmakers with state Rep. Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc), the chairman of the House Education Committee. Instead of relaxing this summer, the hodgepodge of lawmakers will be working on education reform proposals to bring forth this fall for consideration by their legislative colleagues.
The participating lawmakers, regardless of political ideology, deserve praise for volunteering to tackle one of the biggest issues in our state. That said, however, they need to do more than just show up and sign in. They need to lead; they need to coalesce and gel. They need to think outside the box, work with their counterparts from the other side of the aisle, and harness their political moxie to get things done that members of both parties can get behind — and things that will legitimately help Michigan’s students.
Some on the left have attacked Rogers for a teacher tenure reform proposal that he helped shepherd through the state House earlier this month. So be it. But for the time being, forget the merits or drawbacks of that legislation, which is now up for consideration in the state Senate. Rogers has expressed his willingness and desire to work in a non-ideological way. We hope that statement comes to fruition, and we urge the 12 other lawmakers to do the same to produce tangible, apolitical ways to improve Michigan’s education system.
That’s because we see every day — literally — the state Capitol’s exercises in partisanship and frivolity. We see the wasteland of legislation that sits in the hopper, some decent and some downright awful, introduced simply to make a point, to satisfy the Republican or Democratic political bases.
“It’s the unions’ fault,” some declare. “More money for schools,” others chant. Carefully-crafted press releases are issued by political wordsmiths, talking points are drafted by political consultants, and meaningless platitudes become the hot commodity in the marketplace of public policy ideas rather than honest, intellectual bargaining and thought.
Look at what that’s gotten us. All that the partisan banter over education — teacher tenure, the drop-out rate, unions, state aid, legacy costs, and virtually everything else under the sun — has yielded is a system that has, by virtually every metric, year after year fallen behind in academic achievement when compared to other nations. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, that’s no good for anyone — other than those other countries.
So this is where Rogers’ and Scott’s workgroup comes into play. This is a legitimate chance for lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to find common ground, to take a cue from psychologist Carl Rogers, who argued that the best solution to virtually any conflict is a compromise where neither side gets exactly what they want, for both parties to be equally disappointed with something they weren’t able to achieve but which, in the long-run, is better for Michigan students.
Only time will tell what reforms come down the pike as a result of this workgroup. Are we looking at a change to the state aid formula? Maybe. How about modifying the length of the school year? Perhaps. Curriculum standards revisions? We’ll see. Additional opportunities for those students who have no desire to attend a two- or four-year university after they receive their diploma? Who knows?
But that’s not the point. Whatever legislative products this long equation yields, politics cannot be the litmus test by which a proposal is judged. The political gamesmanship is, frankly, anathema to what really is important — whether Michigan’s students do well, or whether they lag behind. Instead, the only criterion under consideration — not special interests or pet political allegiances — should be whether an idea, whether it’s from a Republican or a Democrat, would help Michigan’s schools.
Now, let’s wait and see if Ellison’s words have some bearing on our lawmakers.