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 Article of Interest - Gubernatorial Race

Local Comment:  Make Public Education A Priority

Michigan's Next Governor Must Set Specific Goals - And Implement Them
by State Superintendent Tom Watkins, September 4, 2002, Detroit Free Press
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It's Dick Posthumus vs. Jennifer Granholm in the race for governor.

Both have proposed that education is a top priority. Thus it is important that the citizens of Michigan examine the candidates' respective records and plans, and independently decide which one will advance high quality, accountable neighborhood public schools.

Our public schools are the bedrock of our democracy and economic future for Michigan. The true "statute of liberty" in America is the neighborhood public school. Think about it: No other institution truly takes in the tired, hungry, poor, huddled masses and children with disabilities, and creates hope and opportunity. That dream is lived by 1.7 million children who attend Michigan public schools. We need a governor who will support public education.

These issues, and more will require the next governor's attention:

Boost school readiness. We need greater investment in high quality preschool education. Research indicates that 85 percent of the brain is developed before age 4. Guided by this fact, we must invest our time, energy and resources to ensure all children have access to optimal learning opportunities during these crucial young years.

Eradicate illiteracy. Reading is fundamental. Eighteen percent of adults in Michigan and 47 percent of those in Detroit alone are functionally illiterate. How can we expect our children to read and start school ready to learn given these unacceptable statistics? Greater resources and collaborative efforts are needed to reduce and ultimately obliterate this waste of human capital and subsequent drain on our economy.

End state-sponsored stupidity. Thinking for living has replaced lifting for a living in Michigan. Yet we still have a law on the books that says it is OK to drop out of school at 16. Drop out to what?
The auto industry has not hired a dropout in decades, you cannot enlist in the military without a diploma, and I doubt that kids are dropping out to work on the family farm.

To maintain this policy and practice is state-sponsored stupidity at best, and institutional racism at worse. If the white middle-class suburbs suffered the staggering dropout rate that the poor African-American, Hispanic and Native American communities do, the problem would be seen as an outrage. We can and should do better.

Stop teacher bashing. We need a governor to lift up, not beat down our public schools and the people who work in them. We need to highlight educators who are succeeding and replicate their success. We need a leader to set the tone that it is as unacceptable to bash public education as it would be to tell an inappropriate religious, sexual or racial joke.

Denounce vouchers. Stop seeking "silver bullets" to improve our schools. Private-school vouchers, privatization and tuition tax credits will not address the problems confronting our schools. We know that investment in early childhood, reading, after-school and summer programs will help our struggling students and schools. Stop seeking easy solutions and cutting the investment in these successful programs.

Realign education policy. Over the past decade, education policy and programs have been scattered around state government like the scarecrow's stuffing in the "Wizard of Oz."
For example, the MEAP test and Merit Scholarship Awards are in the Department of Treasury; educational data collecting falls under the Department of Management and Budget; adult literacy, GED and vocational education are under the Department of Career Development; and educational technology is in its own orbit outside state government. We need an educational structure that builds bridges, not digs moats.

Our next governor needs to realign education policy to better meet the needs of Michigan citizens. In today's world, we need an educational system that meets our needs from the womb to the tomb.

Not all these suggestions require resources, but they all require leadership. The state Board of Education and I stand ready to help the new governor lift up our schools, teachers and, most important, our children.

TOM WATKINS is state superintendent of public instruction. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.

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