Must Embrace Basic Reform Following the Watkins Debacle
by Lawrence W. Reed, Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, January 14, 2005
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Dec. 6 report to the State Board of Education,
Michigan’s 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
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."
On Tuesday, 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 has made errors that
have not yet come to light. But whether the board and the
Granholm administration like it or not, his sudden exile to
political limbo will send 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
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.
Create a level
playing field for providers of employee health insurance.
Michigan public school districts are awash in soaring health
care costs because they face intense union pressure to buy
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
School boards should be permitted
broader latitude in hiring competent instructors, whether or not
they’ve jumped through the dubious hoops of university education
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
creating shortages in key subject areas and driving up the
cost of hiring teachers.
competitive bidding for school support services.
Holland Public Schools in West Michigan voted recently to save
$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 and
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 isn’t quick to
recognize them either. But if Watkins won’t be permitted to hint
that there is more to fixing education than "spend more money"
and "charters are evil," it’s hard to see why Michiganians
should send another nickel to the public schools until state
policymakers pass these commonsense reforms.
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