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Unlikely Allies Unite In Bid To Improve Michigan Education

Pixabay Creative Commons

Business leaders, teachers unions and school administrators have formed an unlikely alliance to improve Michigan's K-12 public education system by moving past shorter-term partisan fights that influence policymaking in the Capitol.

The initiative, Launch Michigan, was unveiled Wednesday by more than 30 groups representing about 700,000 people. Among the members are business organizations such as the Business Leaders for Michigan and Detroit Regional Chamber, labor unions such as the Michigan Education Association and AFT Michigan, and an array of school management, philanthropic and other groups.

Organizers said their goal is to stop redefining why the state's education system is lagging and to instead coalesce behind research-driven policies that officeholders and candidates cannot ignore and must stick with long term. In interviews Tuesday ahead of the official announcement in Lansing, they noted commonalities among numerous studies released in the past two years, saying they plan to flesh out a shared agenda this summer and to start putting some ideas before gubernatorial and legislative candidates in the fall.

"We know we can do better. Other states are doing better," said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of the Business Leaders for Michigan, which includes executives from large companies and universities. "Let's build off some of the recommendations that have already been made and move forward."

A top priority initially is teacher development.

"We know that this will be a unique opportunity for us to come together," said MEA President Paula Herbart. "We (must) really focus on what it means to make the classroom teacher, the practitioner, 100 percent prepared and valued and respected to ensure that they can do right by Michigan students."

The early focus will include using a statewide educator survey to guide the coalition's work, supporting a fair and comprehensive accountability system, ensuring an equitable school funding model and raising public awareness about the need to address bleak realities in the state's education system.

Fourth- and eighth-graders rank low nationally in reading and lag in math. As of 2015, per-pupil K-12 spending was lower than a decade earlier when adjusted for inflation and increasing retirement costs. Michigan is middle of the pack in educational attainment — the percentage of adults with an associate's degree or higher — and employers report problems filling vacant jobs with skilled workers.

Until now, every organization involved in public education has said it had the solution instead of trying to find one that everyone could support, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. He said the state too often has taken an inconsistent "flavor-of-the-month" approach to education policy, and well-intentioned interest groups now realize their efforts have not "turned the tide for kids."

There has been consensus in the Republican-controlled Legislature in recent years on issues such as increased preschool spending but also big fights over charter schools, learning standards, state assessments, educator evaluations and accountability for low-performing schools.

"We're not all going to sing kumbaya on everything," Rothwell said. "There are going to be differences that we're going to have with specific areas. ... But the point I think we're trying to make is there ought to be 70 percent, 60 percent — pick a number — of issues that we can all agree on."

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