In a December report to the Michigan Board of Education, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas Watkins called for "boldness and candor" in addressing a "structural funding challenge" in the state’s public schools. A few weeks later, he exercised a bit of that boldness and candor in response to critics of charter schools, telling The Grand Rapids Press, "Let's take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will complain about losing 300 (students) to a charter, but you won't hear a peep out of them when 3,000 (dropouts) go to the streets."
In January, the state board tabled a one-year renewal of Watkins’ contract. This decision came just one day after Board President Kathleen Straus had bristled when asked about rumors that Gov. Jennifer Granholm wanted Watkins to leave. Straus asserted, "The state board awarded the superintendent an A- grade on his last performance evaluation, and my colleagues and I have the utmost confidence in Tom."
Whether the board and the Granholm administration like it or not, Watkins’ subsequent departure sends the signal that it is virtual suicide to challenge the status quo or tolerate even weak forms of school choice, such as charter schools. Watkins’ December report may have been short on specific remedies, but it did show promise, making it plain that "additional revenue without unprecedented change" in the state’s education system was not likely to make a difference.
If the state Board of Education, Gov. Granholm and the state Legislature hope to regain any credibility with the public, they must now show that they are serious about helping kids — and not just exiling people who offer straight talk about the system. They should enact at least four reforms that wouldn’t require school choice, but would free education money for kids in the classroom without raising taxes:
Exempt public schools from Michigan’s archaic Prevailing Wage Act. Mackinac Center research suggests that forcing school districts to contract with only those construction firms that pay "prevailing wages" inflates school renovation and building costs by $150 million annually — a job-killing subsidy to construction unions that provides no equivalent increase in building quality. In 1997, Ohio exempted its public schools from a similar law, and the results there indicate that the Center’s savings estimates are sound.
Create a level playing field for providers of employee health insurance. Many Michigan districts face intense union pressure to buy insurance from MESSA, the health insurance provider affiliated with the Michigan Education Association. MESSA’s Rolls-Royce premiums for Cadillac plans are financed by taxpayers who typically get nothing so irrationally excessive in their own jobs. MESSA also fails to provide claims data that would allow school districts to shop around effectively. The Legislature should require district insurance contracts to stipulate that general health insurance data produced under these contracts are owned by the public, not the insurance provider.
Overhaul teacher certification. School boards should be permitted broader latitude in hiring competent instructors, whether or not they’ve jumped through the dubious hoops of university education courses. If today’s certification requirements guaranteed competency, poor student outcomes wouldn’t be a national epidemic, and Michigan businesses and universities wouldn’t spend $600 million annually on remedial education. Unfortunately, today’s certification requirements exclude many competent candidates, creating shortages in key subject areas and driving up the cost of hiring teachers.
Encourage competitive bidding for school support services. A Mackinac Center survey in 2003 indicated that two-thirds of Michigan school districts outsource neither busing, food nor janitorial services to the private sector. These districts should be strongly encouraged to do so; 63 percent of the districts that had privatized at least one of these services reported cost savings, while 88 percent said they were satisfied with the service quality (only 3 percent were not).
The problems listed above are the "elephants in the room" that are too often ignored when education spending is discussed. If Watkins wasn’t permitted to even hint that there is more to fixing education than tired arguments amounting to nothing more than "spend more money" and "charters are evil," it’s hard to see why Michiganians should send another nickel to the public schools until state policymakers pass these commonsense reforms.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.