Education tops list of forum objectives


Michigan will suffer long term if education performance is not improved.

That was the common concern of experts and community leaders at this year’s West Michigan Policy Forum, held Sept. 24, which brought together 400 business leaders to discuss how the state can continue economic growth.

Though West Michigan has been growing economically over the past decade, as economist Tawni Ferrarini noted, education is key among several concerns resulting in the state’s low talent pool.

She said as education spending has gone up, performance has dropped.

“In whose world does this happen?” Ferrarini said.

Edward Montgomery, president of Western Michigan University, noted Florida is 44th in per-pupil spending but eighth overall in education level and No. 1 in rate of change.

“It’s how you use those resources that matter,” he said.

Montgomery asked if Michigan has “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Michigan has 902 total schooling agencies, while Florida has 75 agencies.

In Florida, there are 67 traditional public school districts serving 2.6 million students, while Michigan has 550 public school districts with 54 intermediate school districts serving about half as many students as Florida.

No matter what agency is measuring, Ferrarini said, Michigan education performance is suffering.

A 2018 State of Michigan Education report by Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan third-graders now are the “lowest-performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment.”

The Business Leaders for Michigan 2017 benchmark report ranked Michigan 46th in fourth-grade reading, 37th in eighth-grade math, 32nd in technical education, 29th in college and career readiness and 30th in higher education attainment.

U.S. News and World Report ranked Michigan’s higher education at 47th.

Montgomery pointed out the low performance is happening across all economic and cultural sectors in Michigan, not just those in economically struggling areas.

In Florida, 58 percent of students are living in or near poverty, and more than a quarter-million students are English learners.

A vote at the end of the education discussion showed 95 percent of attendees support Michigan adopting an A-F accountability rating system for schools based on student performance.

At the forum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush explained the system and how Florida’s education results grew from the very bottom nationally to near the top.

He suggested Michigan schools be held accountable, measuring each school’s performance based on the growth of all students, and that bar should be raised as progress continues.

Bush said high-performing teachers and those working in underserved areas should be paid more, and progress should determine the fate of their jobs and superintendents’ jobs.

“Let’s give remediation for the teachers who are struggling, and if they can’t get better, they should be fired,” he said.

In Florida, he said “social promotion” is eliminated in third grade, and students have to academically earn promotion to the next grades.

He also suggested Michigan adopt a single statewide federally compliant system.

“Essential” to the start is funding the reforms, he said, and quickly.

“There should be a high degree of impatience,” he said, not a three- or four-year plan.

“If you believe that this is important, that children can learn, then the attitude ought to be, ‘Let’s do it yesterday. Let’s not wait three or four years.’”

Bush said the changes were not popular and he heard the term “that’s not fair” from many people, particularly the parents whose children were not receiving high marks under the new system.

“It’s not fair that only a third of our children are college or career ready and two-thirds aren’t,” Bush said. “Talk about equity and fairness — that is going to lead to a social strife in this country the likes of which we can’t even imagine.”

The two other votes at the forum were regarding transportation taxes and ballot proposal reforms.

Seventy percent of attendees indicated a plan for increased transportation tax should not be considered until the current plan for the state’s transportation funding is fully carried out in 2021.

The remaining voters supported an immediate tax increase of $2 billion to meet transportation needs.

Ferrarini said while there are many transportation-related projects happening in the state, residents don’t seem to be aware, and she encouraged leaders to better share that information.

The other vote showed 84 percent of attendees support reform of the current process for ballot proposals is needed to “better represent voters throughout the entire state.”

Mike Jandernoa, the WMPF policy committee chair, said WMPF work will continue on the 2016 conference’s main priority of ensuring the retirement promises made to local government employees and retirees are kept.

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