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The future of Detroit's schools should take center stage at Mackinac

May 31, 2016

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference starts later today.

A year ago, I would have assumed the election would be center stage. A few months ago, I thought everyone might be talking about infrastructure and Flint. But instead, it’s education.

Detroit is the big elephant filling the Grand Hotel.

The Speaker of the House indicates he and his minions won’t show up on the island unless and until they finish a deal on saving Detroit Public Schools.

Education has indeed become center stage, and not only in Detroit.

There’s a lot of buzz over an Education Trust-Midwest report that shows Michigan schools are on their way to becoming about the worst in the country. Some grumble that the Education Trust data is suspect, that things aren’t quite as bad as they believe.

"We are going the wrong direction. The world is getting smarter and Michigan is getting dumber." - Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce

But nobody is claiming Michigan schools are anything but worse than those of most states.

To quote Sandy Baruah, who heads the Detroit Regional Chamber, “We are going the wrong direction. The world is getting smarter and Michigan is getting dumber.”

He thinks the business community needs to press for tougher new standards, especially for better science, technology, engineering and math education – even if that takes more money.

The first priority, however, has to be Detroit, where the schools have been hemorrhaging money and students for years.

The Chamber of Commerce leaders back the governor’s $715 million plan to fix the schools, as does the state Senate.

But the lower House and Speaker Cotter are adamantly opposed. They want to provide less money – but the major sticking point is the governor’s plan for a Detroit Education Commission. It would have a say in where any new public schools, conventional or charter, could open in the city.

Most educators strongly support this, including some responsible charter school operators, who recognize that some charters are substandard. They also know that cannibalistic and destructive competition has left some areas underserved.

And tens of thousands of students have left for schools entirely outside the city. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a master fixer and compromiser, has rallied a number of charter operators who support the concept of the DEC.

But Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the main charter lobbying organization, is no more moderate about charters than the NRA is about gun control.

Once, opposing lawmakers met each other after hours over a glass or on the golf course. Less of that happens in today's polarized world...

He demands no restrictions whatsoever.

But he’s beginning to lose some of his more reasonable members, who agreed with Mayor Duggan when he told the Detroit Free Press that education in the city was “a failure all around.”

Personally, I think it was a mistake for the Speaker not to come to Mackinac. It provides a rare opportunity for members of different parties and ideologies to talk to each other.

Once, opposing lawmakers met each other after hours over a glass or on the golf course. Less of that happens in today’s polarized world, and that’s too bad.

The Mackinac Conference is sometimes criticized for seldom producing any lasting or meaningful agreements. That may not be entirely fair. Progress often starts with relationship building.

In today’s term-limited world, that’s harder than ever, and anything that jump-starts the process has to be worth its weight in complimentary cocktail party shrimp.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.