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Gov. Snyder (quietly) owns up to his policy failures

Feb 8, 2018

Politicians, even lame-duck and completely retired ones, do not like admitting they were wrong. Usually about the best you can get is some statement like “mistakes were made.”

In the worst cases, they obstinately keep on pushing wrong-headed policies even when they have clearly been shown to be disastrous. For further proof of this, read any good history of the Vietnam War. 

Governor Rick Snyder is not nearly as bad as some of them. He does have a hard time admitting he was wrong. But give him credit for this much: When two of his major policy initiatives proved to be complete disasters, he eventually changed course, though he didn’t exactly set new records for openness and candor.

The first case was the EAA, or the Education Achievement Authority. The state took over the 15 worst-performing Detroit Public Schools during Snyder’s first year in office, and vowed to create a model that would result in better prepared students, possibly for less money.

Snyder was so enthusiastic about the EAA that he wanted to spread it to the entire state. But the whole thing turned out to be what one expert at the University of Michigan called “an utter train wreck of educational policy.”

Scores didn’t get better; kids and parents were unhappy; cost overruns were common; the schools turned out to be secretly siphoning off money meant for what’s now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Quietly, without fanfare, the EAA was abolished last June. The schools were folded back into the original district, and that’s been the last we’ve heard of that.

And then yesterday, the governor acknowledged what everyone has known for months: The experiment in privatizing prison food service to save money has been a complete disaster.

Nearly five years ago, the state announced they were contracting prison food service out to save money and provide better service. Privatization has long been an article of faith among those on the far right, since they see everything government does as, by definition, evil.

Years ago, I heard one nutty theorist argue that even lighthouses should be turned over to private enterprise, which should only turn on their beams if boaters paid a fee.

I don’t know if our present legislature would go that far, but they and the governor were hotly enthusiastic for privatizing prison food service. Except it was a disaster from the get-go, first with Aramark and next with Trinity.

There were stories about maggots in the food, days when they ran out of food, and a steady stream of scandals — from privatized workers who smuggled in drugs to other food service workers who were caught having sex with inmates.

Trinity and Aramark wanted to pay their workers as little as possible, and the result of that soon became clear. In the last three years, nearly 200 Trinity food service workers have been barred from Department of Corrections property. Yesterday, the governor gave up.

“I don’t think it turned out to be a good solution,” he said, adding “it’s time to move forward.” The state will now begin hiring full-time prison food workers.

There are some government functions that can be privatized, but contracting out prison food service never really made sense.

We should give the governor credit for at least tacitly admitting he was wrong.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political 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.