>The configuration of our public system of education is >not sustainable educationally or fiscally.
>Given the runaway health care and pension costs, unless >changes are made, we should change the name of the >Department of Education to the Department of "Health >Care and Pensions" to more accurately reflect where the >bulk of any future money will be spent.
Michigan citizens value education. Yet, 62 percent of Michigan's voters rejected the November ballot Proposal 5 to "guarantee" funding increases to our local public schools. The voters understood that the money was for the adults and not the children, so more money wouldn't automatically translate into higher quality and achievement.
Now comes the hard part of making the necessary changes in our schools.
Like the auto industry, our system of public education must change or perish. The configuration of our public system of education is not sustainable educationally or fiscally. And it will not prepare our children to compete in a rapidly changing world without significant and fundamental change.
With technology and globalization, our children are not simply competing against the students in the school district or state next door; they are competing against the 3 billion new capitalists in Russia, China, India and other developing nations that are clamoring to take our jobs and our middle class way of life.
A time for boldness
Bold efforts need to be undertaken to redirect limited resources to the core mission of teaching and learning. Michigan citizens will not increase funding to schools until the governor and Legislature, along with local school boards and superintendents, demonstrate that they have made the tough decisions to:
Address runaway health and pension costs. Close unnecessary school buildings. Consolidate the tiny school districts across the state. Reduce administrative overhead. And direct more of the nearly $13 billion currently spent in our public schools into the classroom.
As an example, the highly regarded public accounting firm Plante & Moran did a study nearly a decade ago that showed how Wayne County could save nearly $10 million annually by consolidating special education bus routes without hurting students. The recommendations were never implemented because it would affect adults and their jobs.
$10 million wasted
That is $10 million that could and should have gone to prepare our children for the 21st-century knowledge economy but was burned up on the roads. There are similar examples across our state.
There are no incentives or natural constituency at the local level for taking on the tough assignment to rein in costs, consolidate school districts, form joint operating agreements and other ways to save money and be more effective with public school aid.
Clearly, our children will benefit from strategically targeted investments. However, the problems confronting our schools cannot and will not be addressed by simply pouring more money into the existing system.
When I was state superintendent of public instruction, I compiled a 2004 report on Michigan's structural school funding issues and warned: "A simple solution would be to join the chorus and simply ask for more tax revenue to fund our schools. However, simply funding the current system will not yield the results our children need and deserve."
Consensus for reform grows
Others are reaching the same conclusion. The executive directors of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards, in a Nov. 15, 2006, joint letter to The Detroit News, appear to agree that fundamental change is needed when they wrote: "Proposal 5 -- rejected by 62 percent of Michigan voters -- should serve as a wake-up call for all of us in education."
The respected Citizens Research Council of Michigan concluded that change is required in a report that stated: "increased pension and health benefit cost for working school employees leaves little room for increased spending directed to teaching and learning."
Last year's Senate majority leader, a Republican, and the Senate minority leader, a Democrat (who is now Gov. Jennifer Granholm's budget director), with more than 40 years of legislative experience between them, concurred that the state needs to consolidate school districts and direct more dollars to the classroom.
Given the runaway health care and pension costs, unless changes are made, we should change the name of the Department of Education to the Department of "Health Care and Pensions" to more accurately reflect where the bulk of any future money will be spent.
We have witnessed what has happened when the auto industry ignored new realities and waited too long to address the structural problems confronting them. Leadership matters. Doing nothing is not a solution.
Michigan's citizens have historically demonstrated their willingness to invest in our children. They will do so in the future when fundamental changes in Michigan's public education system assure them that the investment will pay off for our children and our collective future.
Tom Watkins is a business and education consultant who was state superintendent of public schools from 2001-05. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.