Diverse Grand Rapids charter readies kids for college
Both in its culture and in its ability to prepare students for college, Wellspring Prep is anything but typical.
Located only a couple miles from the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, Wellspring Preparatory High School is tucked just off the beaten path on the city’s northeast side. The school opened in the fall of 2010 with only a freshman class, taking time to make itself known.
Its 470 students comprise a healthy mix of ethnicities, cultures and family incomes. About 70 percent arrive from four of the region’s National Heritage Academies K-8 charter schools. Just over half are racial minorities, and nearly half qualify for federal lunch aid. This diverse population attracts some families, but Wellspring Prep’s rigorous academics and emerging track record of postsecondary success are becoming more prominent in the mind of prospective pupils.
Wellspring Prep earned the ninth highest score out of 640 schools rated on the Mackinac Center’s recent Public High School Context and Performance Report Card, which adjusts multiple years of 11th-grade test scores for student poverty rates. Even as the Grand Rapids charter’s low-income population grows, it has continued to exceed expectations.
“We make every decision based on college prep,” Principal Matthew Stolz explained. Every Wellspring student is required to apply to a four-year college, with the class’s acceptances and scholarships publicly celebrated. Three in four graduates end up at a four-year institution, with the rest attending community college or pursuing a trade.
Along the way students must complete two of the school’s 15 Advanced Placement course offerings and three electives, in addition to the state’s Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements. The school’s curriculum is consciously aligned with the Scholastic Achievement Test, a recent transition after the state shifted from the ACT to the SAT as the required college readiness exam.
Before graduating, everyone must also complete 60 hours of community service. Many different kinds of activities are accepted. “We just want them to think about, and spend time on, someone else,” said Stolz.
Wellspring Prep is one of five Michigan charter high schools affiliated through their relationship with the PrepNet network. The management company provides back office support, managing payroll and other business functions to free up school leaders’ valuable time to focus on overseeing instructional programs.
Two different PrepNet staff members, each of whom is on campus one day a week, offer curriculum guidance and teacher professional development. As in many charter schools, instructors tend to be younger and less experienced. But the school and its supporting organization have a strong focus on upgrading classroom effectiveness. They use Doug Lemov’s bestselling Teach Like a Champion as an essential text.
“We develop great teachers very quickly because of the amount of observations and feedback,” said Amelia O’Brian, PrepNet’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction.
As the school has become more established, early challenges with turnover have gone away. Only one new teacher was needed to fill the spot on Wellspring Prep’s 2016-17 faculty. Multiple years of highly effective evaluations trigger larger pay raises. But keeping teachers on staff is about more than just dollars and cents.
A competitive salary “gets them in the door, but they stay because they like their colleagues, [and] their leader,” O’Brian said. “They become very cognizant of the school culture. They want to make a difference in students’ lives.”
Just as Wellspring Prep strives hard to raise teacher quality, they also invest resources to work with students who come in behind academically. A team of paraprofessionals paid for by federal Title I dollars is largely dedicated to that.
The high value placed on academics has not crowded out extracurricular opportunities. “Monday Electives” provide additional opportunities for students to pursue their interests with the support of teachers, such as creative writing, National Honor Society and Third 90 Network’s hands-on environmental research. While athletics are not the primary emphasis, sports for boys and girls are offered in each of the fall, winter and spring seasons. The campus is also proudly adorned by a new gymnasium and soccer field.
School leaders report that Wellspring Prep’s relationship with its authorizing agency, Bay Mills Community College, has grown stronger in recent years. Following its success, the school anticipates a renewal of its charter in the coming months.
Its unique blend of curriculum focus, teacher development and wrap-around services appears to be a recipe for success for Wellspring Prep. It’s no surprise families are flocking to one of the state’s best public high schools.
Licensing rules are a criminal justice issue
A person who has a criminal record or has served time in prison has a very hard time getting a job in Michigan. Private employers may often reject such an individual, and the state may withhold the occupational license required for a job. This frequently results in people returning to criminal activity and eventually heading back to prison.
It makes sense to prevent some people with criminal backgrounds from working in certain jobs. Companies can and should conduct background checks and weigh the risks of hiring an ex-offender themselves. And sometimes, no matter the risk a private company is willing to accept, it makes sense to use the law to keep ex-offenders out of some jobs. For example, a person who has committed a crime against a child should not be allowed to work in a position that involves regular interaction with children.
But in many cases, particularly when it comes to occupational licensing, the state is unjustly denying people the opportunity to work. When this happens, it’s a form of cruel punishment: Ex-offenders have paid their debt to society but then are barred from participating in society in a legal and productive way. They never get the chance to be fully rehabilitated. The consequences are bad for those citizens, the state and the society as a whole.
Stateline, a news publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts, covered this issue in a recent article — “To Help Ex-Offenders Get Jobs, Some States Reconsider Licenses” — with a focus on states making efforts to change their rules.
In Kentucky, legislators included changes to licensing in a bill that would also create work-release programs at jails, reduce some probation and parole terms, and take other steps to help prisoners re-enter society. In Nebraska, a Libertarian senator has proposed rolling back licensing restrictions for all state residents — including those with criminal records — in a bid to improve conditions for businesses in the state.
“There’s now a marriage of interests,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the libertarian Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm. “It’s something that both sides can get their head around — it’s the great Rooseveltian idea that the best social program is a job.”
Research shows that ex-offenders who are steadily employed are less likely to get into trouble with the law again. And at a time when employers are complaining about worker shortages, [ex-offenders] can be an untapped resource. …
“We have spoken with people who wanted a certain type of job without a license, and have been paid under the table,” said Kim Buddin-Crawford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which is also pushing for changes to licensing.
Michigan’s licensing laws require a person be of “good moral character,” which means criminal offenses can be used to deny someone the opportunity to work. Other statutes related to health occupations, school employees, insurance agents, law enforcement work and more automatically prevent people from working if they’ve committed certain types of crimes. Our recent study on Michigan’s licensing regulations discusses how this affects ex-offenders:
Though the state and licensing boards are not supposed to consider a criminal record that is unrelated to an individual’s ability to serve the public fairly, in practice regulators can deny anyone from obtaining a license if they fail to meet the subjective moral character standard. This applies even for civil crimes or misdemeanors, which may appear on someone’s record for missing a child care payment or causing minor property damage.
Nearly all states prevent people with a criminal record from getting some occupational licenses. Many states prevent people from ever getting a license again if they have a criminal record, even if it is unrelated to the area of work they seek a license for. … [In state rankings] Michigan [receives] a “minimal” grade because it has a “blanket ban” on some people from ever gaining a state license, has a vague standard concerning statutes of limitation and does not make it easy for a person to demonstrate that they have been sufficiently rehabilitated.
These blanket bans on licensing for anyone with a criminal record [are] important because of the close connection between employment and recidivism rates. A first-of-its-kind study by Dr. Stephen Slivinski of the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University compared state occupational licensing barriers and the effects on ex-offenders. He writes:
This study estimates that between 1997 and 2007 the states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9 percent. Conversely, the states that had the lowest burdens and no such character provisions saw an average decline in that recidivism rate of nearly 2.5 percent.
An ex-offender is much less likely to reoffend if he is gainfully employed. By refusing to consider giving licenses to people with a criminal record, Michigan increases its recidivism rate. Unless a person has been found guilty of a crime directly related to the area they want to work in, the state should not stand in their way of obtaining a license to work legally.
Legislators should change the laws. A job is the best guarantee against someone returning to criminal activity. The state’s strict but subjective licensing standards prevent too many ex-offenders from ever getting a real chance to matriculate back into society, even after they have supposedly paid their debt.
Learn more at www.mackinac.org/licensure.
March 17, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report
Senate Bill 46, Revise emergency vehicle flashing lights requirement: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To eliminate a requirement that flashing lights be mounted on the roof of an authorized emergency vehicle. These vehicles would still have to have flashing emergency lights; they just wouldn’t have to be on the roof.
House Bill 4013, Allow electronic vehicle registration in car (versus paper): Passed 108 to 0 in the House
To allow the vehicle registration document motorists are required to have when driving to be an electronic picture of the document on their smartphone or other device.
House Bill 4080, Authorize new energy-related purchase/debt scheme for schools: Passed 106 to 2 in the House
To allow schools to contract with vendors for energy efficiency projects, and pay for these with money the projects are supposed to save (or from regular tax revenue if savings don’t appear).
House Bill 4063, Ban aiming a “directed energy device” at an aircraft: Passed 107 to 1 in the House
To make it a crime to intentionally aim a beam of directed energy from a directed energy device at or into path of an aircraft, with violators subject to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. This includes lasers and any other "highly focused energy" that could damage or interfere with an aircraft.
House Bill 4150, Expand open records law to legislature: Passed 108 to 0 in the House
To extend the Freedom of Information Act to legislators, whose offices are currently exempt, subject to a broad range of exceptions and exemptions. The House also passed House Bill 4148, which extends the disclosure requirements to certain kinds of documents held by the governor's office.
House Bill 4154, Create process for appealing denial of legislature records request: Passed 108 to 0 in the House
To establish procedures for appealing the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request, or the fees demanded to fulfill it, by the House or Senate open records law coordinator. Appeals would go not to the courts but to an existing Legislative Council appointed by legislature itself, and in cases of improper denial this body would be limited to recommending the House or Senate discipline the House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader.
House Bill 4155, Exceptions to applying open records law to legislature: Passed 108 to 0 in the House
To define the records that would be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests to the state legislature under House Bill 5469. These include standard provisions on records dealing with security matters, active contract bidding, information of a personal nature or business proprietary records, records that violate attorney-client privilege or involve ongoing litigation, etc. The bill would also exempt records of exchanges between a lawmaker and a constituent. Notably, records held by the Republican and Democratic caucus staffs would also be exempt, including their communications and public relations operations.
SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit http://www.MichiganVotes.org.
More subsidies won’t improve economy
Business Leaders for Michigan president and CEO Doug Rothwell points to economic competition between the states to justify a proposal for new Michigan taxpayer subsidies to certain businesses.
"But the reality is if they've got a machine gun and we've got a pistol, my gosh we're going to get killed here,” Rothwell told the Associated Press.
Yet Michigan’s economy is already thriving even without new corporate giveaways. The state has become a national leader in economic growth and job creation.
Michigan has added 545,000 jobs in the economic expansion that began in 2009, a 14.2 percent gain that is 13th-greatest nationwide, and most in the region.
Per capita personal income — a measure of how well-off residents are on average — increased 30.3 percent from the first quarter of 2010 to the third quarter of 2016, the most recent data available. That’s fourth among the states and also best in the region.
Inflation-adjusted gross domestic product — a measure of how much the state economy produces — increased 16.3 percent during this time, the eighth-fastest nationwide and also best in the region.
Additional business favors (beyond the many that are already offered) are portrayed as weapons in the battle for jobs among the states. Regardless of their caliber, however, the subsidy programs Rothwell supports only shoot blanks. The programs are more about press releases than jobs; they invite corruption and they do not justify their costs. They create a pop and a flash, but no real impact. Michigan’s economy is doing well and adding or losing more subsidy programs won’t change that.
Testimony from the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of remarks prepared for the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.
I would like to thank the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, and co-chairs Valerie Brader and Heidi Grether for the opportunity to comment.
My name is Jason Hayes. I am the director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
You have heard comments discussing potential dangers associated with transferring liquid fuels through the Straits of Mackinac. I cannot disagree with people when they argue that we face risks as a result of our energy choices, nor do I fault them for their desire to protect our natural environment.
I can, however, question the improper characterization of those who support the provision of reliable, affordable energy as not caring about environmental protection. No one looks forward to the environmental disruptions and harm to human well-being that would be caused by a pipeline rupture.
I can also question policy solutions like “leave it in the ground,” or “shut down Line 5.” Neither are realistic or credible options, given our state’s current technologies and energy needs and our desire to reduce overall environmental impacts and to improve human life.
There are many reasons to carefully maintain and continue using the Line 5 pipeline. I will list four in this public comment.
First, as a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson noted in an October 2015, MLive.com article, "It's easy for an environmental group to call for (Line 5) to be shut down based on the existence of an indeterminable future threat to the environment," but it is a "heck of a lot more complex."
The article explains that to legally shut down the pipeline, the state would need a court order showing clear violations of state law or the 1953 easement. It would also need to show an "imminent threat" of pipeline failure. In the same article, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration stated that the life of a properly constructed and maintained pipeline is “virtually endless.”
Dr. Edward Timm’s recent paper discusses potential structural integrity issues arising from strong water currents in the Straits and early pipe handling techniques. This paper also recognizes the immediate closure may be “judged to be too extreme based on economic concerns,” and recommends increased inspections and “real-time monitoring of weather events and currents in the most vulnerable areas of the pipeline.”
Second, the use of all energy resources has inherent risks. But, the benefits of using liquid fuels clearly outweigh the harms, and transporting those fuels by pipeline is safer than other comparable options. A 2013 Manhattan Institute study showed that road transportation has a twenty times higher incidence rate and rail transportation has double the rate of incidents of pipelines.
The Association of Oil Pipeline reports that today, 99.999 percent of all petroleum products transferred by pipeline arrive at their destination safely. This is no small feat when one considers that there are over 9,700 miles of pipelines in the state of Michigan, and 2.6 million miles of pipelines across the United States.
Additionally, vice president of U.S. operations at Enbridge, Brad Shamla, noted in a January 2016 MLive article that the state of Michigan requested that Line 5 be built, in part “to eliminate tanker traffic on the Great Lakes.”
Third, natural gas and oil are energy dense and affordable fuels that help maintain Michigan’s economy and our quality of life. For over six decades, Line 5 has carried natural gas and light crude oil to this state. Refineries in the Detroit area refine 30 percent of the crude oil transferred by the pipeline. Over 80 million barrels of Michigan-produced crude have been transported in Line 5 since 1999. In 2014, Enbridge’s four other pipelines, together with Line 5, benefited Michigan’s economy by paying over $22 million in taxes.
Fourth, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released its “Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2015,” which indicates that “Overall, net emissions (of GHGs) in 2015 were 11.2 percent below 2005 levels,” a larger reduction than any other major industrialized nation. The report explains that a key reason for the decrease is fuel switching from coal to natural gas.
Michigan’s two major electric utilities – DTE and Consumers Energy – are in the midst of a multiyear plan to “retire (their) coal fleet.” Additionally, Consumers Energy has opted to cease purchasing power from the Palisades nuclear plant.
Recognizing that both utilities are switching a majority of their generation capacity to natural gas, it will not be possible to maintain reliable and affordable electricity generation in Michigan without an abundant supply of natural gas.
Petroleum fuels are essential to improving Michiganders’ quality of life and our economy. They also play an important role in improving our health and bettering our environmental quality. For that reason, I believe it is essential to continue the operation of Line 5. I also believe that a hypervigilant maintenance and monitoring schedule be maintained on Line 5 to protect critical environmental values and water quality.
Thank once again to co-chairs Brader and Grether and the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board for the opportunity to comment.
Lawmakers should reject latest proposal for more
In support of a new business subsidy program, Business Leaders for Michigan writes, “Michigan can no longer afford to be the only state besides Alaska with a corporate income tax – without a program to attract large projects.” But this misleading, because Michigan has dozens of programs that deliver select favors to certain businesses.
The Citizens Research Council gives a list and description of the economic development programs available to businesses in Michigan. It lists 53 programs offered by the state, local and federal governments. The report is 166 pages long. Some of the programs mentioned are no longer handing out awards, but most are.
And CRC’s report isn’t all-inclusive. It doesn’t include the Michigan Business Development Program or the Community Revitalization Program that will cost taxpayers $101.5 million this year. Gov. Snyder called for $14 million more for these programs in his budget for next year. The MBDP alone has offered over $300 million in taxpayer money to select businesses since its inception in 2012.
Based on their historical performance, these programs are more about press releases than jobs. Plus, they invite corruption and do not justify their costs. Lawmakers should stop creating new, similar programs.
BLM also writes in their blog that the state needs “a simple but potent tax incentive that’s transparent [and] doesn’t pick winners and losers ... One that will help grow our communities and grow our families’ paychecks.”
That’s a good idea. The easiest way to make that happen would be to cut the income tax for everyone, rather than just handing out more business subsidies for a select lucky few.
Senate bills 111-115 being considered
The Michigan Legislature is considering a package of bills that would give a few lucky developers special subsidies. Senate Bills 111-115 are unfair, ineffective and irrational and lawmakers should reject them.
These bills allow a handful of well-connected builders to get subsidies paid for from money that would otherwise fund government programs. Someone who starts a development — say, a sports stadium — would be selected by Lansing and, after putting up the initial capital, be able to take money from taxes paid by nearby individuals and taxpayers and keep it.
The research on these types of deals is clear: Tax increment financing and other selective business subsidies don’t work. For two decades, Michigan’s MEGA program — which gave tax breaks to corporations — created less than 20 percent of the jobs it promised while 96 percent of projects failed to live up to expectations. Research showed that MEGA had zero or a negative impact on job growth, but taxpayers are paying out billions because of it. Recent studies of TIF programs, similar to what these bills allow, show they result in fewer jobs and lower income and do little to help local cities.
Michigan legislators recently rejected a bill to cut the income tax rate for everyone, saying it would be too costly. How can we afford subsidies for big business when we can’t afford a tax cut for families? Rather than give away up to $1.8 billion in taxpayer money to well-connected crony capitalists, lawmakers should allow regular people to keep more of what they are owed.
Members of the House Tax Policy are now considering the bills. The lawmakers on that committee, who can be reached through the links below, are:
Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston
David Maturen, R-Vicksburg
Martin Howrylak, R-Troy
Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township
Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township
Hank Vaupel, R-Fowlerville
Steven Johnson, R-Wayland
Bronna Kahle, R-Clinton
James Lower, R-Ionia
Wendell Byrd, D-Detroit
Sheldon Neely, D-Flint
Jim Ellison, D-Royal Oak
Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn.
Illinois used to gain net population from Michigan
Editor's Note: The following was authored by Madelyn Harwood, a policy writer for the Illinois Policy Institute, and originally posted on the blog of the Illinois Policy Institute. It is reposted here with permission.
Illinois once enjoyed an annual population boost from Michigan. But in Illinois’ downward economic spiral, migration between Illinois and Michigan has tipped to favor the faster-growing Wolverine State.
For eight of the past 10 years, Illinois gained population from Michigan, adding nearly 15,000 Michiganders, on net, from 2006 through 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The gains over those years largely coincided with the 2008 meltdown of the automotive industry during the Great Recession and Michigan’s ensuing economic crisis. This 15,000 net gain for Illinois – comparable to the population of Dixon – was a modest but valuable source of new residents at a time when the Land of Lincoln was losing population to most surrounding states.
Foolish policy decisions in the Land of Lincoln and smart ones in the Wolverine State have in recent years helped reverse the flow of Illinois-Michigan interstate migration. Altogether, in 2014 and 2015, Illinois lost more than 4,000 residents, on net, to Michigan. This reversal is not a one-sided phenomenon: It’s the result of both fewer Michigan residents moving into Illinois and more Illinois residents moving into Michigan.
What explains this change? In general, Michigan has offered more opportunities and lower costs for families seeking work while Illinois’ economy has sputtered.
Michigan is more pro-growth and less expensive than Illinois
Michigan is seeing enhanced economic opportunity, which can drive new investment in the state. Michigan’s economic growth correlates both with the revival of the auto industry and with smart policy changes in the Wolverine State. Since enacting Right to Work in March 2013, for instance, Michigan has seen faster jobs and income growth than Illinois, which lacks Right-to-Work legislation. According to a 2016 Chief Executive Magazine survey, nine of the 10 best states for business had Right-to-Work laws.
Michigan is also beating Illinois in the competition for manufacturing jobs. That’s partly because Illinois’ highest-in-the-region workers’ compensation costs deter manufacturing investment. Workers’ compensation represents a major expense for manufacturers, so it’s in their interest to operate in states with lower costs. Compared with Illinois, Michigan’s workers’ compensation premium rates are roughly 30 percent lower.
A relatively lighter tax burden in Michigan also benefits both businesses and residents. Compared with Illinois, Michigan’s property taxes and corporate income taxes are each approximately 23 percent lower, and the state’s sales tax is about 31 percent lower than Illinois’ average combined sales tax rate. And while Illinois currently imposes a lower personal income tax than Michigan, the Illinois Senate is fighting to raise both corporate and personal income taxes to levels above Michigan’s rates.
Moreover, unlike in Illinois, Michigan policymakers have succeeded in reducing the strain of cost drivers – such as public pensions for policymakers and their staffs – on the state’s budget, which minimizes the need to raise taxes while making the state more sustainable in the long term.
Although Michigan’s economy would stand to gain even more from additional policy improvements, it is still faring far better than Illinois’. In fact, from December 2012 through December 2016, Michigan experienced the strongest jobs growth in the region at 7.4 percent, compared with Illinois’ 3.9 percent, the worst in the region. Michigan also added 2,500 manufacturing jobs in 2016, while Illinois lost 11,000.
Making Illinois more competitive
Illinois is accustomed to losing net population to its neighboring states, but it hasn’t always lost to Michigan. This about-face should sound the alarm for Illinois policymakers, who must admit that structural, pro-growth reforms are needed to improve the state’s economy and prevent its descent into insolvency.
Commonsense policy changes, such as reforming workers’ compensation to bring costs more in line with those in other states and enacting Right to Work, would make Illinois more fertile for jobs growth. Similarly, lawmakers should make Illinois a more affordable place to call home by implementing a property-tax freeze to protect home values and boost the housing market, as well as fixing cost drivers – such as government-union collective bargaining and pensions – that trigger perennial calls for tax hikes.
Illinois is clearly on the losing end of the ongoing “border wars” for industry and population, and state policymakers shouldn’t stand idly by as the state digs itself deeper into obsolescence.
This should be ‘science 101’
On March 6, members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee introduced the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST Act). At the same time, Reps. Frank Lucas, R-OK, and Lamar Smith, R-TX, proposed legislation to reform the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.
Rep. Smith explained why the HONEST Act was introduced. “An open and honest scientific process is long overdue at EPA. American taxpayers have often had to foot the bill for regulations and rules based on hidden science that has not been available for review by the public. … This bill would prohibit any future regulations from taking effect unless the underlying scientific data is public.”
He also defended the Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017. “The SAB at EPA,” he said, “has the opportunity to include a more balanced group of scientists to assist EPA in fulfilling its core mission.” He added, “This bill would ensure that scientists advising EPA on regulatory decisions are not the same scientists receiving EPA grants.”
The Office of Science Advisor within the EPA says, “Science is the backbone of EPA's decision-making. The Agency's ability to pursue its mission to protect human health and the environment depends upon the integrity of the science on which it relies.”
The OSA continues by describing the importance of scientific integrity, using words like objectivity, clarity, and reproducibility. It also notes that scientific integrity “helps to build public support” as “people are more likely to support the Agency if they can trust the quality and integrity of the work.”
On those matters, I’m confident that most people would agree. The public should expect federal agencies to use credible, reproducible, and transparent science to support their regulatory efforts.
As President Reagan noted, though, we can trust, but should still verify, and the average person should not be viewed as unreasonable for asking “Why?” when faced with new, life-changing regulations. “Just trust us” is not good enough when regulations will affect the availability or expense of energy, cost people their jobs or raise prices and restrict access to essential goods and services.
Of course, this isn’t the first effort by Congress to impose transparency on the EPA. The Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 and 2015 both attempted to address this issue. However, some in the Senate attacked the bills as laughable and even insane. President Obama promised to veto the bills if they ever made it to his desk.
Smith says, though, that the EPA has not lived up to its stated commitment to scientific integrity. Others agree; the agency has faced a growing chorus of critics who say it is not transparent and uses questionable practices when it appoints scientists to its advisory board.
For example, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute has worked for years, using Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits, to force transparency on the agency.
The institute’s work has revealed, among other things, that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had secret email accounts. Additionally, EPA staffers were found to have used personal email accounts, apparently to avoid federal requirements for preserving and reporting data. The institute also found out about a string of secret meetings and communications between senior EPA officials and environmental groups carried on while the agency was preparing energy-focused regulations.
The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee also experienced difficulties when dealing with the EPA. In April 2016, Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who chaired the committee, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy describing a strained, multi-year interaction between the EPA and the committee. He noted serious “concerns the agency is not committed to a transparent or meaningful public input process” for selecting members of the advisory board.
Transparency in this area is absolutely essential as the board is the primary means of peer review for the EPA’s science. However, the Congressional Research Service has shown that, in 2014, board members had received substantial EPA-funded research grants. Those grants raise the obvious question: To what degree (if at all) has the presence of a substantial funding relationship affected the peer review decisions of the agency’s advisory board?
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has a consistent track record of calling for transparency from all levels of government and publicly funded organizations. This case is no different.
Some will bemoan demands for transparency in EPA science and peer-review processes as a partisan attempt to hinder the agency. But the reality is that open, public access to the science underlying regulation — the science that affects everyone’s lives and the science we have all paid for — should be a basic, first principle. Furthermore, we should be able to expect that the peer review process EPA regulators tell us is trustworthy is not carried out by scientists who also rely on the agency for funding.
These expectations are eminently reasonable. In fact, they should be science 101.
Happy ‘Sunshine Week’ 2017
In simple terms, government is a group of people using resources that belong to the public. Since these funds were earned by taxpayers, they have a right to know exactly how their government is using their money.
Sometimes government entities do things that conflict with what’s in the best collective interest of the public, many times in secret. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, there was an increased interest in making governments more transparent. In response, politicians created the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, as it’s commonly called. FOIA is perhaps the most important tool that journalists and the public have to keep governments accountable. These laws differ by state, but they all give citizens the right to request and receive information from public entities.
March 12-18 is “Sunshine Week,” a national event celebrating “your right to know” information about your government. To show the importance of this week and government transparency laws, here are some of the key ways we’ve used Michigan’s FOIA law to hold public entities accountable.
- From 2006 to 2012, the state of Michigan transferred millions of dollars each year from day care providers and home caregivers to unions to use for political purposes. Most of the 100,000 people affected had no idea they were even in a union. Nevertheless, unions skimmed tens of millions of dollars in dues from government subsidies meant for the poor and disabled before legislators finally put a stop to it. We were able to expose this tragic scheme largely from public records we obtained through FOIA.
- Every year, taxpayers are spending millions of dollars on “union release time” and “pension spiking” schemes. Public records requests to all 540 school districts turned up the dozens of school districts that redirect money meant for educating students to release time. They pay union officials and release them from all of their public duties, such as teaching. Instead, these officials work full-time for their union on the taxpayer’s dime. And union officials across the state have also entered into agreements where they pretend to work for school districts while actually working for a private union, in order to gain extra pension benefits — which taxpayers fund, of course.
- The Flint water crisis rocked the state in 2015 and 2016. It was hard for anyone to know who was responsible and how much blame-shifting was going on. Our simple FOIA was delayed for four months when we tried to get to the bottom of some of the issues. (Other reporters eventually broke key stories.) We’ve filed a lawsuit against the state to ensure openness going forward.
- FOIA requests to every school district showed that less than 0.001 percent of all tenured teacher are ever fired, including those who were caught kissing and assaulting students, using drugs and committing other criminal acts. The Legislature eventually passed a bill making it easier to get rid of bad educators and, today, districts report far fewer of these problems.
- After the president of the University of Michigan made disparaging remarks about supporters of President Donald Trump, we requested documents to understand why a university president would make disparaging comments about some of his students. The university took more than 100 days to give us four documents, but denied others related to the request. Given our commitment to government openness, you shouldn’t be surprised about this: We’re now in the middle of a lawsuit about it.
- In Michigan, school districts must use merit as the main driver for teacher compensation. But most of the state’s largest school districts ignore the law, instead basing pay strictly on degree-level and seniority. We learned of this through FOIA requests we sent to school districts.
- The Detroit Land Bank’s blight demolition program has come under scrutiny and was subject to a federal investigation for wasted funds and inefficiencies. An open records request showed that the person accused of wrongdoing was simply transferred to another department with a pay cut, while taxpayers are out over $800,000.
- Detroit Public Schools borrowed and spent more than $500 million to upgrade facilities. Despite the massive influx of funds, more than dozen schools (which each received millions for upgrades) were cited for health and safety violations. We used a FOIA request to show how much they got and what the violations were.
Though Michigan’s FOIA laws are powerful, they still have flaws. The state should close loopholes that allow public entities to delay giving information for months. Both the governor and the Legislature should be subject to the law, a practice other states follow. And legislators should continue to pursue changes that make as much information public as possible, especially when it can be done easily and cheaply electronically.
Without government transparency laws, it would be very difficult for reporters to do their jobs. And thanks to tools like FOIA, regular citizens can help hold public officials accountable.