Will they risk it?


John Austin at the Michigan Economic Center has a plan: build Michigan’s economy by investing in our universities, the State’s singular “innovation ecosystem,” as MLive explains,

Austin recommends altering Michigan’s economic development platform to invest further in what he called the “innovation ecosystem.”

“Incentive dollars (to get companies to move to Michigan) are not very effective in economic development,” Austin said. Instead, he said, a $20 million shift to create an innovation investment fund could attract four times that amount from private investors – and, with reinvestment, turn into a billion-dollar jobs engine.

“That’s an easy one to do,” Austin said. “The venture and innovation community in Michigan is foursquare behind building this.”

Seems like such an easy thing to do, invest in our schools and not in business handouts, too bad we’re missing a Legislature willing to make the deal.

6 industries that promise most growth for Michigan’s economy




Expanding the base

MLive reports on the plans by Grand Rapids Public Schools to establish a Museum school. At first blush this looks a tad precious, a frou-frou sort of program while the district faces intense challenges on the educational performance front. However, looking more closely, one may see the outline of a two pronged approach. What makes the educational needle so difficult to thread in Grand Rapids is the relative diversity of the community as a whole, coupled with the concentration of minority and poverty-impacted families within GRPS proper. The strategic challenge for the district is how to avoid being known only as a provider for the poor, a school of last (and worst) resort. So two broad directions need to be taken.

First, GRPS needs to address the performance impact of poverty on the students. The correlation between poverty and lagging achievement has been long recognized. While schools can compensate for this impact to some extent, tht path is not only costly, but still subject to the external factors. Success here can be achieved, but it is of a slow variety.  In the meantime, hopeful parents look to charters as an alternative.  GRPS therefore needs to address the issues arising from poverty: safety, some fundamental achievement, better retention (which is to say, better hope).

But that is one side of the coin. Grand Rapids is more than minorities and poverty. Much more. If the district is to thrive, it needs to find ways  to make room for more middle class families. And just to be clear, the Census has been recording a vanishing of families with teens for decades. Retention, too may be subject to significant external factors (e.g.  size in the City versus house size in  the new suburbs). What makes an Initiative such as the Museum school so hopeful is that it appears to recognize another truth in educational reform, that students from poverty background do better in a more economically diverse classroom. Thus if one is to meet the challenge of the concentration of poverty, one ought to be looking at ways of adding more middle  class families to the mix.

The innovation programs far from being something of a frou-frou, are strategically working to broaden the base, and so diminish the impact of concentrated poverty. Moreover, one needs more programs that are not test-in.  Further, such programs along with neighborhood schools also need more expenditure of social capital by those “outside.” 

In a complex educational environment that includes varieties of schools, programs, and opportunities, GRPS needs to think about what it has that can contribute to the health of the entire community. it is not at all clear that schools and parents will easily match up by neighborhood. Within the urban area we are far more likely to see a number of programs that parents choose from or participate in. More options within the district are an essential for GRPS if it is to remain competitive and not simply fall into the school of last (and failed) resort. That would be a tragedy for the region.

Where do we put our money?

While West Michigan is known for its charity, that work gets translated into very different outcomes. It’s the difference between Art Prize and the Kalamazoo Promise. Something is going on, but what? It certainly seems worth a study (well as long as some one else pays for it — a kind of irony in itself),  as MLive explains

Through GVSU’s Russell G. Mawby Fellowships in Philanthropic Studies, (Michelle) Miller-Adams will examine “why two similar communities have produced such different models of philanthropic behavior, and what are the implications of the different models for philanthropy and volunteerism in the broader communities,” according to the university.

As a first pass, several issues seem to come to the fore.

First, as a philanthropic community, the tenor and tone of the giving will be determined by the leaders. Here, the number of fortunes in question are actually fairly small: Upjohn, Stryker, the Amway nexus, Steelcase, and perhaps the Cook money. With such a small sample set, some of the variation may simply be that of the particular character of the families themselves.

Second, it may be the relative age of the money. The older fortunes (Upjohn, Steelcase) arose in a more communitarian framework; these are generally industrial fortunes, the fruit of great enterprises.  Newer money has grown from more entrepreneurial enterprises, Amway being the leading example. This latter money tends to support entities that reflect similar entrepreneurial, civic building enterprises, such as the Van Andel Institute.

Third, there is perhaps a religious element here, as well. The Grand Rapids fortunes — particularly those flowing from the Amway nexus, and from Meijer — are anchored in the Dutch-American culture. Both the Steelcase money and the Upjohn fortunes flow from more generally American backgrounds, grounded in mainline religion. (Interesting to note that the lumber baron Blodgett himself was something of a notorious doubter).

For those of us with far less exalted means, the questions still remain: what do we invest in, what projects capture our time, our resources?

What has been distinctive for both communities has been the creativity leaders have brought. When resources and creativity meet, good things can happen.

Thinking about Boston Square

Boston Square made the news the other day — the restaurant reviewer thought the neighborhood a little iffy. Well it’s not to the people who love it. Ask Bob Vander Lugt in his protest against a restaurant review of 7 Mares that found the neighborhood “gasping for breath.” As Vander Lugt owns Modern Hardware, a store in business for 89 years (and Standard Lumber across the street, we might add), that was totally mistaken, an affront.

It does get me thinking, though.

I’ve lived by the neighborhood long enough to watch some favorite businesses leave:  Kingma’s, the meat counter at Boston Foods, and of course breakfast at the Road House.

Now, Kalamazoo is a path through an old Dutch neighborhood, from its headwaters on Hall down to the Alger intersection at the tracks. Vander Lugt is right, there are some good civic bones here, a structure worthy of revitalization. The City and MSU have both conducted studies in the Boston Square neighborhood and have given a roadmap for potential development. Some of the ideas are certainly worth following up — for instance, adding in more mixed use housing and perhaps reimagining the parking lot in the center of the Fuller-Adams-Kalamazoo triangle as more of a public square.

boston square

This is a neighborhood worth the dreaming.

The cruel answer

The Grand Rapids Press jumps ahead of a bill in Lansing, and recommends a package of bills that would dissolve insolvent school districts such as the notorious case of Buena Vista, outside Flint. These districts had it coming because they have been “irresponsible.”

It’s irresponsible for school districts to decide to close their doors early because they’ve run out of cash.
In fact, it’s irresponsible to run out of cash, even in a time of continued enrollment declines, which reduces state aid. Good leaders know how much money they have to spend and plan accordingly, even if that means painful cuts or finding innovative ways to do things.

Well, maybe.

Consolidation and charges of irresponsibility are something of  a cruel response, given Lansing’s own actions.

The record of stress on the school districts is rather well documented. With few exceptions (GRPS being one) most districts have actually seen their level of financial stress increase in the past four years, sometimes dramatically. This is available on the Citizens Research Council dataset. The notion that school districts have suddenly been afflicted with inability to make decisions is at best half a story. A more complete discussion would also include the questions as to the source of this stress, and here the Republican party must bear the blame with its policies of tax cuts and compensating revenue shifts away from education generally, and the local schools in particular. Second, the other determining factor has been that of declining enrollment, driven by both economics (Recession) and school choice.

What is true, is that with small districts the combination of declining enrollment and shorted funds can be especially dangerous. This was noted earlier this year by State Superintendent Tom Flanagan.

 At one point, talking about relatively small districts with declining enrollment, Flanagan said “you’re smoking something” if possible consolidation isn’t part of the discussion.  “I just think if you’re (at) 400 (enrollment) and sinking and you don’t try to find a dance partner next door,

But if the small school district can’t do it by itself, what’s the solution? The proposed county-wide consolidation is hardly the magic bullet The Press thinks it to be. Rather it is the classic kick the can down the road: a vote for the status quo in the guise of actually doing something —  no one imagines Kent County consolidating.  It’s a polite washing of one’s hands. A bolder press would be taking the Republican policies to task for deliberately jeopardizing the future of Michigan’s children with its lamentable combination of revenue shifts and half-baked reforms on the cheap.


A Faulty Foundation

This week Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced a set of bills to in part,  prevent “censorship of our founding documents” (SB 120). While that can be dismissed as the usual hot air of  political posturing, the other bills are more substantive, one (SB 423)

establishes requirements for schools to incorporate teaching provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and would require the Michigan Department of Education to incorporate those subjects into standardized testing of students.

The fundamental problem here is the elevation of the Declaration of Independence as a core document of this nation. While one can appreciate the desire of those social conservatives to elevate the Declaration (particularly the bit about inalienable rights being endowed by the Creator…. not that conservatives have an especially good grasp on the concept of “inalienable”), for the purposes of understanding our actual government, it is the Constitution that rules.  And if one is to have a mandated test, then that Constitution ought to be front and center.

Yet even a cursory review reveals what’s missing: the total absence of any of the great national documents regarding African-Americans. Well, yes, in politeness, they did leave off the bit about slaves being worth only 3/5 a vote in the original Constitution, but where is the insistence that children of this state learn about the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural. Or for that matter, the Gettysburg Address? For a party that once championed, bled and died for these great truths, this is a peculiar omission.

An omission less surprising, given the origin of this measure in the southern social conservative community.


Quality Education?

Amber Arellano, director of Education-Trust Midwest is concerned about educational achievement in Michigan, especially among African Americans. For that reason she is understandably looking forward to the Governor’s State of the State address tonight, outlining ten “buzz worthy” education issues for the coming year. First up on her list,

1. Who defines “quality” education?
Back in 2011, some Lansing leaders were puzzled when we demanded quality standards for charter school operators wanting to expand in Michigan. Today, lots of folks talk about education “quality.”
Everyone wants to own the “quality” school badge, but few will attach sound research-based strategies to improve student achievement to the label.

What she is looking for, obviously, are the policy, the proven steps we can take. Quality, here, represents  the measurable. Nonetheless, the first question is central: who exactly does define quality education? Will it be measured by the standards of the educrat, be it from the left like Ms. Arellano, or the right like Mr. McLellan? Behind this are the questions of ownership: are the schools the property of the state house, the governor, a particular party? Or do they belong to their communities?

Quality is not simply a policy term but points us to the issue of ownership. As Left Back, Diane Ravitch’s own history of educational reform makes clear, often the agenda of the reformers and educrat exists in tension with that of the desires of the community itself. “Reform” is not a new problem.

When it comes to the African-American community, it is still pretty shocking that reformers do bring  minority communities to the discussion. Instead, the Lansing approach has been to take their schools from them, provide computer programs and implement other nostrums, all because we know what is good for the poor and minority child. Reform absent community input and engagement is simply not reform, but a form of patronizing. Here, the rise of charter schools continues to point to real interest in our urban communities for better answers.

And finally, we should note  two items  missing in Arellano’s essay. First, no mention of early childhood education, this, despite the fact the studies keep pointing to the early years as the key to long-term student success (this plays a large role in the Governor’s State of the State address). Second, if the question is about minority achievement, then a second source may be that of simply having more minorities in as teachers. We are not likely to build solid, stable educational communities if the teachers and the sending populations are widely different.

Why the Second folows the First

At MLive there has been a raging war over the propriety of openly carrying firearms to civic meetings. this leads to a number of talking points, perhaps the central role of guns and rights. Does force undergird the establishment of free speech. As one commentator put it:

Guns protect your free speech. In fact guns gave you your free speech.

Free speech and free minds are the necessary foundation to gun rights. Freedom begins when we move away from the Hobbesian war against all, when we covenant together. Freedom takes place precisely when we limit our turn to private force.

Moreover, the notion of guns as protection means first that there must be a notion of justice. That is, to be legitimate force must first be used to a just end, otherwise it is simply the expression of the subjective self, of whim. So how then do we determine justice? Force cannot provide the answer, rational discussion must. Thus, free speech necessarily precedes the weapon, because only be such speech (or philosophy) can we determine when force is just and proper.

Literally, without free speech and free minds you would not know what to do with your gun.

the glittery nose of the coming aristocracy

Dave Murray raises a pertinent point when discussing the differences in education and especially education outcomes between elite suburbs and some of our more challenged, urban districts.

the question should be why we are teaching students in Grand Blanc and Bloomfield Hills the same way we teach children in our urban areas, where the students have different needs?
That’s not a union problem or a teacher problem. It’s a system problem.

If we end up with different expectations or outcomes depending on where the student comes from then we are rather close to undoing the fundamental vision of public education as a tool for a free society. We educate all, and hold all to the same sorts of standards (and curricula) because we want a common, informed, educated community.

The great fear about the corporate-computer reformers is that their program finally ends up short-changing students, fitting them for employable “slots” but not addressing the more holistic goals of citizenship. A system that equips you for jobs alone, that makes of you an individualistic consumer is one that is a mere hop and a skip from disenfranchising you. No matter how much you put the glitter on, it is still the face of aristocracy. And that we can and must do without.

a further note

Perhaps the big difference between the urban and high-achieving suburban models is how such wider educational goals are achieved. Citizenship, with its exposure to the community’s goods, its arts and values, is actually rather expensive. Not surprisingly, with poverty-challenged learners schools find it easier to “focus on the basics.” And in pure fiscal terms it makes sense. This in fact is how we end up with de facto educational segregation we see now. In this case, it is the place of the community to step up and provide those other programs — the orchestras, the art programs, the debate societies and such — that the particular school district cannot provide. Indeed, with the shift to more distributed educational models, particularly those of the charters, such a move would seem to be a necessity.

Why not just charge them?

Lot’s of discussion at MLive on what to be done post-Newtown, and especially in the wake of Wayne LaPierre’s suggestion if stationing armed guards in all our schools. Here’s an alternative: why not simply have all gun owners pony up for insurance. Liability in the event of mass-death. Say we assign $10 mill for each life lost. Pennies on the dollar for gun ownership. This is admittedly, a tongue-in cheek suggestion.  But it was offensive, all the same:

So you are okay with the slaughter of 5 year olds as long as parents get a check for each one killed?

Of course, that’s the logic of our policy right now. Presently we don’t compensate the parents or victims at all. Instead the social cost of massive gun ownership is shifted over to the community at large. In economic terms this is what they call an “negative externality.” With social costs distributed to some one else, we do not have an effective means of allocating the costs for the open ownership gun policy at present. The search for other alternatives to protection (LaPierre’s infamous guns in schools, or the calls for better tracking of the mentally ill) each involve more significant intervention in society, the very opposite of the putative freedom agenda. And given the reluctance to effect a political ban on such weapons, we may as well create economic incentives.

Insurance does that (taxes would, too). This also addresses the social cost gun ownership philosophy. Not only does their possession increase gun deaths, but the advocacy of gun ownership generally naturally leads to a culture where armed violence is considered a means of solving problems, be it of the criminal sort or that generated by mental disturbance. After all, given that numerous studies show that gun deaths vary directly with per capita gun ownership, we might better think of such deaths more as other random and disastrous but quantifiable events — and that is the problem that insurance solves.

So if we cannot ban the guns, at the very least we ought to make gun owners pay for the consequences of this freedom.