The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Where Do Democrats Stand on Education?" by The Detroit News, 7/30/98.

Original Title:
Michigan Education and Primary Politics
by Barry McGhan

Spending for public schools and colleges is the largest single item in the state budget. Voters are concerned about the quality of the state's schools. Democratic primary candidates, faced with unseating an incumbent governor actively involved in education, need to put forward a strong program. What have they been able to come up with?

As might be expected from campaign literature, common slogans are sprinkled here and there--local control; equal access; the traditional 3 R's; and high standards. Of the three Democratic contenders, Geoffrey Fieger's short theme-less policy statement has the highest proportion of slogans. The longer statements of Larry Owen and Doug Ross are better organized and have more detailed ideas. The catchy theme of the Owen campaign is to restore the "other" 3 R's to schools--respect, responsibility, and results. The Ross theme, "creating new public schools for a new century," signals an interest in modernizing the education system.

Each candidate criticizes one or more of Governor Engler's actions or positions. Fieger faults Engler for shifting control of schools to the state; reducing the collective bargaining rights of teachers; and trying to shift money from public to private schools. Owen cites what he sees as Engler's failure to strengthen child care for low income and working parents; his vetoes of funds for reducing K-3 class size and professional development of teachers; and the elimination of the core curriculum. Ross feels Engler has no vision of the needs of a 21st century education system; that he has demeaned and diminished teachers; and, like Fieger, he thinks the Governor intends to skim off public money for private schools.

All three Democrats would like to expand child care and pre-school programs; set higher standards for student performance; shift funding and authority from administration to the classroom; and help families pay for college. Fieger and Ross match up on enhancing local control and opposing funding for private schools. Owen and Fieger feel that programs that reduce substance abuse will help schools; that teacher certification standards should be raised, along with teacher training; and there should be a return to the traditional three R's. Ross and Owen favor "discipline schools" and an expansion of after-school programs for the children of working parents. They would also like to see more funds go to early elementary programs; technology training for teachers; and a shift of decision-making and funding to the classroom level.

There are also differences among the three Democratic candidates. For example, only Fieger proposes to uncouple school funding from property taxes to reduce inequalities between districts. Only Owen makes extensive recommendations about improving child care for young children. Only Ross makes a pitch for providing more choice within the framework of public education.

What can we make of all these proposals?

Some seem contradictory. Increased local control, for example is contrary to the idea of a common set of higher performance standards for students. It's also contrary to efforts to make school funding more equitable. There are few clues in these candidates' statements about how the contradictions behind some of their ideas can be unsnarled.

None of the candidates explicitly suggest more funding for education, so we must wonder how these proposals will be paid for. Some re-distribution of funds seems implied, which is likely to be controversial. For example, Ross is careful to promise increases in pre-school and K-3 spending only if state revenues increase--presumably through growth in the state economy. On the other hand, it's unclear where Owen will find the funding for his child care proposals, or Fieger the funding for restoring substance abuse programs.

What might voters like in these policy statements? There are several choices. For example, working parents with small children will find Owen's child care proposals appealing. Voters in poorer districts will like Fieger's controversial idea to uncouple education funding from property taxes. Parents who want more choices for their children will be drawn to Ross's proposal to increase the array of public school choices.

There are other worthwhile ideas in these statements. For example, the common realization that more funding and decision-making at the classroom level are needed is very good to see. And, the general interest in improving pre-school child care would meet a need that has been poorly met so far. Some nifty ideas are not shared by the three candidates. Owen, for example, proposes that beginning teachers go through a kind of two-year apprenticeship training.

Overall, I'd give Fieger a "D", Owen a "B" and Ross a "C+" on their education statements. Whoever wins the primary should integrate the good ideas of his opponents into the fall campaign. It might lead to an "A" from the voters.


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