Various reports and projections on the West Michigan and Michigan economy are showing notable upticks, providing at least short-term confidence to further fuel growth. While business leaders project revenue growth and new hiring, the issue of greatest concern — and a sure killer to such growth — is continued education issues.
State Board of Education President John Austin, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, noted in the Guest Column on this page last week: “Michigan has cut 16 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars for K-12 education. Over the past 10 years, Michigan made a 29 percent real reduction in higher education support, which we are just beginning to turn back with Gov. Rick Snyder’s latest budget proposals.”
But while Austin also notes the “structural flaws in organizing and funding schools,” Grand Rapids Public Schools has quietly been earning statewide kudos for any number of its initiatives, and especially for its leadership.
While funding levels remain a paramount issue, the State Board of Education spent its January meeting reviewing an in-depth examination of GRPS programs, community initiatives and schools of choice. State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan went so far as to say, “I really think we will see Grand Rapids as a national story. It’s nice to have in our backyard a success story to show what we can — and do — do in thousands of schools.”
Even Snyder’s education policy advisor, Craig Ruff, agreed with the assessment.
The center of attention is GRPS Superintendent Theresa Weatherall, a native Grand Rapidian who earned the post after decades of serving the GRPS system and guiding its successive, difficult morph through excruciating changes. Flanagan told Weatherall, “The civic leaders of Grand Rapids think of you as an extraordinary leader, and that’s not necessarily true of every superintendent in this state.” He also noted, “You’re doing something extraordinary.”
Austin said GRPS constituents are “getting value for their money.”
“You’re making tough choices but you’re also innovating and making big change. I do think the future of public education is creating this diverse array of learning environments that are different for different needs and different interests … high-quality learning options within a public school system,” he said.
Other board members remarked on the climate of collaboration Weatherall has built and the “collaborative plans” making significant differences in the district.
State Board of Education member from Grand Rapids Lupe Ramos-Montigny told the assembled state leaders: “In Grand Rapids, the mayor is right there, the city manager is right there, the police chief is right there, the Amway people are right there. Everybody works together. We disregard political parties because we know we’re there because we have a mission. … We have an obligation to take care of the children because they are our future leaders.”
This is sure footing for the upcoming work force, and the business community can be a benefactor and a beneficiary.