Risks Taking Blame for Education Ills
by Thomas Bray, The Detroit News, January 26, 2005
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At the end of
the day, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is likely to get her wish that
Tom Watkins step down as state superintendent of education. She
should be careful what she wishes for, however. In trashing
Watkins, she is making the education quagmire her own.
The governor reportedly has pestered the superintendent to
vacate his office for a year or so, eager to replace him with
somebody of her own choosing -- though Watkins is a moderate
Democrat who played several key roles for Jim Blanchard when the
latter was governor. But Watkins, who officially reports to the
elected State Board of Education, refused to play the good
soldier. Rather than resigning, he has been using his office as
a bully pulpit for advocating fundamental reforms.
In a paper released in mid-December, Watkins asserted the
looming red ink in the $12 billion-a-year school aid budget
represented a "structural deficit" that required "unprecedented
change." At the time, I caviled that this invited a tax
increase, since Watkins is among those who have insisted the
state delay the Engler tax cuts.
But Watkins vehemently denies that was his specific intent. And
it's interesting that the pressure on Watkins from the
governor's office escalated sharply after press reports that his
paper had focused mainly on the need to rethink how Michigan
spends its $12 billion in K-12 funds -- including consolidation
of the state's 750 school districts and reining in teacher
health care and pension costs.
In subsequent weeks, the governor's office was quoted as
suggesting Watkins was an ineffective manager and that the real
reason he was dragging his feet was to extort a fat money
settlement. Never mind that he had refused to take prior salary
increases or donated them to charitable causes, hardly the sign
of a money-grubber. Or that longtime school board member and
President Kathleen Straus, also a Democrat, defended his
What a governor wants, a governor tends to get. But what,
really, does the governor want?
That's far from clear. As the Detroit school system continues to
melt down, there has been little guidance from Lansing. Nor has
the governor been quick to tell the public her plans for curing
the overall K-12 deficit.
Maybe that will change when Granholm delivers her annual State
of the State and budget messages. And maybe she wants Watkins
out because she is making such big plans that she feels the need
of a proven ally at the Board of Education.
But there has been no indication of such big thinking so far.
The timing of her move suggests she has been feeling the
pressure from political patrons who don't like Watkins'
assertion that fundamental reform is needed.
That would hardly be surprising. School district officials tend
to like their perks and salaries, and aren't eager to merge
themselves out of business. The Michigan Education Association
takes even less kindly to the idea of tinkering with teachers
benefits -- which are rising rapidly to 20 percent of payroll
from 15 percent only a few years ago, according to the Citizens
Research Council of Michigan.
Especially galling, no doubt, was Watkins' suggestion that the
MEA no longer be allowed to browbeat school districts into
giving their lucrative benefits administration business to an
MEA subsidiary, as most of them do in an effort to keep the
But unless the Michigan economy takes a sudden turn for the
better -- which seems unlikely in view of the woes of the auto
industry -- the governor will either be forced to set some
controversial priorities or find a way to raise taxes. Then
Granholm may find herself wishing she had let Watkins continue
taking the heat for doing what has to be done.
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