In a Dec. 6 report to the Michigan Board of Education, then-state Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas Watkins called for "boldness and candor" in addressing a "structural funding challenge" in the state’s public schools. A few weeks later, he exercised a bit of that boldness and candor in response to critics of charter schools, telling The Grand Rapids Press: "Let’s take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will complain about losing 300 (students) to a charter, but you won’t hear a peep out of them when 3,000 (dropouts) go to the streets."
In January, the Michigan Board of Education tabled a one-year renewal of Watkins’ contract. This decision came just one day after Board President Kathleen Straus had bristled when asked by MIRS to respond to rumors that the Granholm administration wanted Watkins to leave. Straus asserted, "The State Board awarded the Superintendent an A- grade on his last performance evaluation, and my colleagues and I have the utmost confidence in Tom."
Perhaps Watkins made errors that have not yet come to light. But whether the board and the Granholm administration like it or not, his sudden political exile has sent the signal that it is virtual suicide to challenge the status quo or tolerate even weak forms of school choice, such as charter schools (once championed by President Clinton). Watkins’ December report may have been short on specific remedies, but it did show promise, making it plain that "additional revenue without unprecedented change" in the state’s education system was not likely to make a difference.
If the Michigan Board of Education, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the state Legislature hope to regain any credibility with the public, they must now show that they are serious about helping kids — and not just shutting down people who offer straight talk about the system. They should enact at least four reforms that don’t require school choice, but would free education money for kids in the classroom without raising taxes:
1. Exempt public schools from Michigan’s archaic Prevailing Wage Act. Mackinac Center research suggests that forcing school districts to contract with only those construction firms that pay "prevailing wages" inflates school renovation and building costs by $150 million annually — a job-killing subsidy to construction unions that provides no equivalent increase in building quality. In 1997, Ohio exempted its public schools from a similar law, and the results there indicate that the Center’s savings estimates are sound.
2. Create a level playing field for providers of employee health insurance. Many Michigan public school districts are awash in soaring health care costs because they face intense union pressure to buy insurance from MESSA, the health insurance provider affiliated with the Michigan Education Association. MESSA’s Rolls-Royce premiums for Cadillac plans are financed by taxpayers who typically get nothing so irrationally excessive in their own jobs.
The Legislature’s efforts to create a level playing field in school health insurance have foundered on MESSA’s unwillingness to provide claims data that would allow school districts to shop around effectively. This costly game of cat-and-mouse should end: The Legislature should require district insurance contracts to stipulate that general health insurance data produced under the contracts are owned by the public, not the provider. Enabling school districts to consider multiple providers would likely save millions of dollars.
3. Overhaul teacher certification. School boards should be permitted broader latitude in hiring competent instructors, whether or not they’ve jumped through the dubious hoops of university education courses. If today’s certification requirements guaranteed competency, poor student outcomes wouldn’t be a national epidemic, and Michigan businesses and universities wouldn’t spend $600 million annually on remedial education. Unfortunately, today’s certification requirements exclude many competent candidates, creating shortages in key subject areas and driving up the cost of hiring teachers.
4. Encourage competitive bidding for school support services. Holland Public Schools in West Michigan voted recently to save as much as $700,000 in annual costs by outsourcing custodial work, but a Mackinac Center survey in 2003 indicated that two-thirds of Michigan school districts do not outsource busing, food or even janitorial services to the private sector. These districts should be strongly encouraged to do so; 63 percent of the districts that had privatized these services reported cost savings, while 88 percent said they were satisfied with the service quality (only 3 percent were not).
The problems listed above are the "elephants in the room" that are too often ignored when education spending is discussed. Tom Watkins wasn’t quick to recognize them either. But if Watkins wasn’t permitted to hint that there is more to fixing education than "spend more money" and "charter schools are evil," it’s hard to see why Michiganians should send another nickel to the public schools until state policy-makers pass these commonsense reforms.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. An earlier version of this article was published in The Oakland Press on Friday, Jan. 14, 2005.