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Article of Interest - Michigan

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Bridges4Kids LogoGranholm 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 achievements.

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 labor peace.

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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