Jack Lessenberry

Commentary
9:43 am
Tue October 11, 2011

Expanding Charter Schools

We usually think of Franklin D. Roosevelt today as the quintessential liberal, big government president -- and in today’s polarized politics, both sides look back at his New Deal as the time when things either started going right or wrong, depending.

However, FDR didn’t think of himself that way. Once, when asked about his ideology, he said something like, “I try something, and if it doesn’t work, I try something else." Those who were really on the far left in his day mainly hated him. They understood what he was trying to do better than the right wing did.

As author Gore Vidal put it, “He saved capitalism. Whether it should have been saved or not is a different question. But he saved it, all right.”

I was reminded of this today by the ongoing, ferocious debate going on in Lansing over charter schools, which are independent, for-profit, public schools. A new package of bills would lift virtually all restrictions on charters, which are now limited to areas where public school performance is below average.

What bothers me is that so much of the ongoing debate over these schools is ideological or self-serving. And too few of the lawmakers debating these proposals are asking any version of FDR’s classic question, which in this case should be put this way:

What is the best way to make sure these children are being educated? Common sense means that we should all be in favor of any system that gets that job done, by any means necessary.

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Commentary
12:09 pm
Fri October 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice? Not So Much

When your local state legislator campaigns for reelection next time, or runs for some other office, they may remind you of how they helped save the state by gallantly giving up their retirement health care benefits.

When and if they do, you might want to remember that this is mostly a form of horse exhaust. With a very few exceptions, they didn’t vote to give up their benefits at all.

They voted to deny benefits to other people who haven’t been elected yet, and who could theoretically change the law back.

As for our current band of elected leaders - they are mostly keeping their benefits, thank you very much.

Here’s what’s really going on. Retired Michigan legislators have, in fact, been getting taxpayer-subsidized health care benefits since the nineteen-fifties. By the way, it was a solidly Republican legislature that first voted to do this. Contrary to some propaganda you may have been hearing, the benefits aren’t completely free, and they don‘t kick in till the ex-lawmakers reach age fifty-five.

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Sports
5:29 pm
Wed September 28, 2011

History: Detroit Tigers

Comerica Park in Detroit.
user: Urban Adventures / flickr

(*We're experiencing technical problems with one of the above audio files. Please ignore the "audio processing" message above.)

In 1935, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. The last time the baseball team won their Division was back in 1987. And now the Tigers will open the playoffs this Friday. While it’s certainly exciting for the team and its fans, is there a larger impact the city and the state can enjoy from a successful sports team?  Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry gives us a historical perspective.

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Culture
10:46 am
Tue September 27, 2011

Honoring Living People on Stamps?

You have to admit, this has been a very odd year in Michigan, and things seem likely to get odder. We have a governor who happily calls himself a nerd, almost never wears a tie, never ran for office before, and has been phenomenally successful at getting the legislature to pass whatever laws he wants.

His only failure so far has been to get them to accept a bridge which wouldn’t cost anything, would mean ten thousand jobs and two billion free dollars from the federal government.

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Commentary
6:23 am
Tue September 20, 2011

Playing Ball

If you could magically transport a Detroiter from a century ago to the present, he or she would recognize virtually nothing about their city or their state. They’d be staggered by the size of things and appalled by the vast stretches of blight.

While cars were becoming the mainstay of our economy back then, today’s vehicles are so different that they would be essentially unrecognizable to someone from nineteen eleven.

Most people back then had never seen an airplane, there were no bridges over the Detroit River and no federal income tax.

But they would understand they were in the same place once you told them: “The Detroit Tigers are in an exciting race for the American League pennant.”

Baseball, of course, is more than a sport; it is a cultural touchstone.  The Tigers of a century ago had a season that was a mirror image of this one. This year, the team played only slightly better than mediocre baseball until the last month or so.

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Culture
11:07 am
Fri September 16, 2011

Civil Rights, 2011 Style

Daniel Krichbaum is head of the only department of state government explicitly authorized by the Michigan Constitution.

He is also executive director of the smallest department of state government, one that few people even know exists. If you haven‘t guessed, it is the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

And if your response is, “huh? Civil Rights? That’s so 1960s. Isn’t that over?” he won’t be surprised. He hears that all the time.

Krichbaum, in fact, has been around for long enough to have had a number of stellar careers. He has a PhD in education and is an ordained Methodist minister. But he’s devoted most of his career to public service, most notably as head of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity. Before that, he spent seventeen years as parks and recreation director for the City of Detroit.

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Commentary
10:50 am
Mon September 12, 2011

Emerging Voices After 9/11

Michigan and the nation just finished a weekend commemorating the September 11th terrorist attacks ten years ago. But I think we should take a moment to think about those we don’t normally think about who were also touched by the tragedy.

Last week a former student reminded me what I did that day, when I had a large lecture class in Detroit  that morning. “Who here lives in Canada?” I asked.  Half a dozen hands shot up.

“Go home, now. Right now,” I said. They were startled. They knew I never let them out early. “But I have another class after this one,” somebody said. “If you don’t go now, you may not get home,“ I answered. I thought they would close the border.

They actually didn’t, but by that evening, the wait time was many hours. Then, things got worse after a story in the Boston Globe incorrectly said some of the hijackers came through Canada.

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Politics
8:43 am
Wed September 7, 2011

The week in state politics

State Capitol building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo Flickr

Every Wednesday, we get a dose of state politics from Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry. On tap for this morning: state lawmakers are back in Lansing for the fall session, there's a good chance 'right to work' legislation will make its way to the state Legislature, and the latest round of musical chairs in the state's 2012 Congressional election.

Commentary
10:00 am
Tue September 6, 2011

The President Speaks

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

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History
5:07 pm
Fri September 2, 2011

Why we celebrate Labor Day

Participants in the 1960 Labor Day parade in New York. On Monday September 5, President Obama is expected to give a speech in Detroit.
The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives

This Friday many of us head into a three day weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer. We might mark Labor Day with a family picnic, one last summer visit to the beach, or maybe with a mad scramble to get that last bit of school preparation done. But what is Labor Day really for? Joining us to take a look is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst, Jack Lessenberry.

Commentary
1:10 pm
Thu September 1, 2011

A Conversation with Rick Snyder

So, who is Rick Snyder, really? I spent a half hour talking to the governor yesterday, the first long conversation I’ve had with him since he took office exactly eight months ago.

Since then, he’s gotten more through the legislature than the last governor did in eight years. He’s also been the subject of nasty criticism and a recall attempt.

I was curious about a lot of things, one of which being whether he still likes this job he worked so hard at winning a year ago.

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Politics
9:09 am
Wed August 31, 2011

The Week in State Politics

Matthileo Flickr

Every Wednesday morning, we speak with Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's Political Analyst, about what's going on in state politics. This morning, we talk about the resignation of Democratic State Representative Tim Melton to become a lobbyist, Governor Snyder's plans for reforming the state's personal property tax, and the possibility that the Highland Park school system could be taken over by a state-appointed emergency manager.

Commentary
11:19 am
Tue August 30, 2011

Proposal A Revisited

These are tough times for Michigan’s Public Schools, which by and large, have done a superb job educating our citizens since we became a state nearly two hundred years ago.

Statewide, the schools are suffering from a series of crippling funding cuts enacted at the same time we are demanding they do more with less. Teachers feel that their hard-won health care, pension, salaries and benefits are under siege.

And some districts are suffering further because an explosion of charter schools are taking students and money away from them. This is most acute in Detroit. There, a revolving door of expensive financial managers and high-paid consultants have proven unable to fix the schools or halt the stampede away from them.

Naturally, this has led to a crisis atmosphere. I spent yesterday afternoon with the leadership of the various school districts in one of Michigan’s major counties. They believe there is an actual conspiracy against them. They think there are those who want to essentially destroy public education and turn it into a system of charter schools and vouchers, for one big reason: To get private hands on some of the thirteen billion a year Michigan spends on public education.

Whether that’s true or not, that there is a major crisis - and coincidentally, a major new report finally gets to the bottom of just why this is. There are few institutions more respected than the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, whose motto is this: The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Released yesterday, the CRC’s study is called “Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools.” That may not sound like a sexy page-turner, but for those of us interested in saving our state, it is.

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Commentary
9:58 am
Mon August 29, 2011

Taxing Liquor in Michigan

There are taxes, and then there are taxes. Some are straightforward. If I spend ten dollars at the hardware store this afternoon, I know I’ll pay sixty cents in sales taxes.

But other taxes are hidden, and may be higher than we suspect. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is an independent, non-partisan think tank with a strong fiscally libertarian bias.

Last week, it released a statistical analysis of liquor prices. The center found they are higher in states like Michigan where the state government acts as the statewide wholesale distributor.

How much higher? A little over six percent. They took as their example a fifth of a particular common brand of Scotch. They found that it costs, on average, a dollar fifty-nine more a bottle in the seventeen states like Michigan where government is the wholesaler. The Mackinac Center said this amounted to, “a substantial hidden tax on a commodity already subject to large state and federal taxes.” The implication is that this is bad.

However, I’m not so sure. I suppose it would bother me more if it were a tax on baby formula, or if the tax left liquor costing twenty percent more than in Illinois, for example. But nobody forces anybody to buy a bottle of Scotch.

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Commentary
12:54 pm
Fri August 26, 2011

Remembering Elly Peterson

She was, simply put, a woman ahead of her time, now nearly forgotten, who deserves to be better remembered in Michigan history.

It was she, not Debbie Stabenow, who was the first woman in Michigan to ever win a nomination for a U.S. Senate race.

She spent her life fighting for women to get a toehold in politics, fighting to be taken seriously by the men who led her party and weren’t accustomed to sharing power. She accomplished more than she ever took credit or was ever given credit for.

And despite all that, in the end, her party turned its back on most of what she stood for. But to the end of her days, she fought back with dignity and charm, and never let bitterness eat at her soul.

The woman I’m talking about is Elly Peterson, who gave her life to better conditions for women in politics -- and did so from within the GOP. Elly - everybody called her that - was ninety-four and living in Colorado when she died three years ago.

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Politics
9:03 am
Wed August 24, 2011

The Week in State Politics

Matthileo Flickr

Every Wednesday morning, we get Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry's perspective on the week's political news. Today, we talk about Democratic Representative Hansen Clarke's announcement that he will run in the state's 14th District in the 2012 election, a seat that is currently held by another Democrat, Representative John Conyers. We also take a look at what the state legislature is up to this week and talk about the announcement that Governor Snyder will make his first international trade trip next month to China, Japan and South Korea.

Commentary
11:44 am
Mon August 22, 2011

Odd Man Out

There’s a game of musical chairs going on right now to determine which congressman will end up without a job a year from January. Yesterday, the likely outcome became a little more clear.

First of all, a little background: Michigan is losing a seat in congress because of national population shifts. The legislature redrew the boundary lines, and since Republicans control everything in Lansing, they made sure it would be a Democrat who lost out.

The only question was, which one? When the proposed new districts were revealed, it seemed at first that Oakland County’s Gary Peters would be the certain loser. The area in which he lives and fellow Democrat Sander Levin lives wound up in the same district.

The two men could run against each other in next August’s primary, of course, but on paper, Peters wouldn’t stand a chance.

Most of the new district is territory Levin has been representing, so he has home field advantage. Sandy Levin is also a sort of an icon. He was first elected to the state senate before Peters was six years old. He’s completing thirty years in Congress.

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Commentary
10:22 am
Thu August 18, 2011

Should there be fewer judges in Michigan?

Does Michigan need fewer judges? The chief justice of the state supreme court thinks so, and so does the governor.

Yesterday, a new study by the state court administrative office recommended eliminating forty-five of the almost six hundred trial judges in Michigan, and also getting rid of four appeals court judges.

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Commentary
10:52 am
Wed August 17, 2011

Children in Poverty

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan has more than half a million kids in families whose incomes are below the poverty level. Half a million. That’s according to reliable figures provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan League for Human Services.

Every year, they bring us something called the Kids Count Data Book, a demographic survey of children’s well-being, funded by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This year’s study shows that almost one in four Michigan kids is poverty-stricken. That’s as of two years ago, and the situation probably worsened last year. That’s more significant than it seems: Poverty-stricken children all too often grow up to be poor, unemployed and sometimes unemployable adults. They seldom get the education they need to be successful in the modern economy.

Additionally, kids who live under economic stress also tend to have more health problems, according to Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Kids Count in Michigan project.

That should bother you even if you have a heart of stone, because society is going to end up paying a tremendous economic as well as human cost as a result. We won’t see the full effect of the recession on our children for years.

And, there are things we could do to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, according to the experts, we seem to be choosing policies guaranteed to do exactly the opposite. Michigan, by the way, isn’t the worst state in the nation when it comes to child poverty, though we are worse than most.

We’ve fallen a few notches to thirtieth out of fifty states. But while child poverty went up nationally by 18 percent since two thousand, it increased in Michigan by a staggering 64 percent.

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Politics
8:09 am
Wed August 17, 2011

The Week in State Politics

State Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo Flickr

Republican leaders in the state Senate say they will push for a closed presidential primary to take place in Michigan on February 28. That’s one week earlier than the National Republican Party rules allow and penalties could include having the state's convention delegates stripped. In today's "The Week in State Politics" Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry takes a look at what a February 28 GOP primary would mean for the state and the presidential primary candidates.

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