Amend the State Constitution to Improve Education

Those who care about children, education, workforce opportunity, high-wage jobs and the future of the State of Michigan must unite to amend the State Constitution, adding a right to a quality education.

This quality component added to Article VIII, Section 2, must include language to force the Michigan Legislature to fully fund a quality public education in every community, and define public education as exclusively not-for-profit, promulgated only in the public interest.

For decades, Michigan has been slipping down the rankings of U.S. states with declining industry, population, birthrate, and education outcomes. Most Michiganians have adjusted to a lower quality of life than their parents and grandparents, not because they wanted to, but because they had little choice.

Almost zero legislative innovation, negative investment, and tax breaks for business and wealthy neighbors have yielded the current state of affairs. Legislative atrophy has resulted in bad roads, bad water, a well-developed school to prison pipeline, and some children graduating while functionally illiterate. A small forest has likely been destroyed printing the sheer volume of reports, analysis, surveys, and punditry surrounding Michigan’s structural challenges from sources local, national, and international. Now we grapple with possibly the greatest challenge in modern American history: the social and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the years, term limits have extinguished state legislative institutional memory. In other words, most State Representatives and Senators are incapable of fixing the problem of quality education because they perpetuate plausible deniability arguments: “it’s not my fault,” or “the problem is too expensive to fix.” We have heard excuses time and again. By design, novices and amateurs (even if well-intended) are charged with electing leadership in the State House who, with few exceptions, can have no more than 4 years of experience writing and approving an annual $56+ billion budget.

While residents in Michigan have the right to something called a public education, it is unfortunately the policy of the State of Michigan that residents do not have a right to a “quality” public education. Former Attorney General Bill Schuette argued this on behalf of the state in 2014, and won his argument in the Michigan Court of Appeals against students in Highland Park. Those students had been robbed of a quality education by an “emergency manager” who reported to then Governor Rick Snyder.

For context, here are a few points regarding the declining quality of education in Michigan, via expert reporting and analysis from Bridge Magazine:

  • Michigan ranks dead last in K12 investment between 2005-2014, declining 7%, when funding increased 3.6% nationally.
  • Student performance has rapidly declined across the board. Michigan 4th grade reading skills fell from 28th in 2003, to 41st in 2015.
  • Over $100 million is spent every year on college level remedial instruction.
  • A 70% decline in university enrollment for new teachers has been realized in Michigan between 2009 – 2017. The destructive politics surrounding education policy has effectively poisoned the well for new teachers.

Another helpful bit of context, the following tenets of a quality education are based on the author’s experience as a political scientist and a workforce development systems expert:

  • Proficiency in reading and arithmetic,
  • Digital and financial literacy, with access to broadband internet and technology in the home,
  • Soft skills exposure and attainment including: timeliness, presentation skills, and awareness of social norms,
  • Critical thinking inspired by broad-based, cross-cultural, experiential learning,
  • Career awareness exploration, and appreciation for life-long learning.

Denied a quality education, students in communities of color (and even in poor white communities), have experienced a dramatic increase in long-term unemployment, creating structural obstacles to housing, work, and unreachable auto insurance premiums that further depress labor market opportunity.

Regardless of race, the zip code one is born in is a greater indicator of one’s life-time earning potential than many other factors. Life-time earning is directly correlated to access to a quality education. One could make a strong case, in fact, that Jim Crow has found his way into Michigan law, with hardly a finger lifted in opposition by the Michigan Legislature in the six years since the Highland Park case.

Even though legislators and governors have campaigned on the importance of public education for decades, our challenges continue grow. Michigan voters, however, have the power to demand that every child receives a quality education.

A template exists for voters to take education prioritization into their own hands. In 2018, an amazing thing happened. Actually, according to the pundits and political wonks in Michigan, an impossible thing happened that year. Voters Not Politicians (VNP), a West Michigan, grassroots pro-democracy organization, gathered the requisite number of voter signatures to eliminate legislative gerrymandering in Michigan, using only volunteer labor. Then, Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment taking the power of redistricting away from the vile and short-sighted tendencies that rule the culture of our partisan legislature. It is time to build upon VNP’s success for the sake of students and our shared economic future.

The systems we have today are almost entirely the fault of Democrats and Republicans elected to “represent” our interests. Their failure to represent our interests is open and obvious. Just ask any business what their number one challenge is: finding qualified workers. Despite our declining population, we have plenty of people in Michigan to fill every job available, but we have chosen not to educate hundreds of thousands of residents.

A person gets one shot at a no-cost public education. Without an update to Michigan’s State Constitution making that a quality, not-for-profit public education, we are doomed to continue to lose our best and brightest. Businesses who can’t find high-quality talent will scale-down, close and relocate, and we will have fully embraced Jim Crow-era policy as the pathway forward for our state.

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