Can Michigan's schools be saved?

Sep 6, 2017 at 1:00 am

Kristi Bowman is a professor and an attorney who is vice dean for academic affairs at Michigan State University. But what she really knows best is education law.

Bowman's devoted her life to it. Before becoming a professor, she worked for a law firm and represented school districts in Chicago. Later, she became one of the nation's top academic experts on education law.

Recently, I interviewed her after having read a long and fascinating article she's written that will be published shortly in the Michigan Journal of Law Reform.

Her piece, "The Failure of Education Federalism," is not for the casual reader; it's more than 10,000 words long. But the title says it all; public education is slowly failing everywhere.

Unless we have a significant change in national policy, she concludes that the "floor" of educational quality will continue to be anything but equal, both between and within the states.

Before long, she told me, "in more and more places like Michigan, the floor will rot and students will fall through."

Kids have, of course, been falling through for years. More on Bowman's recommendations in a bit. But first: For years, politicians in this country — and perhaps especially in Michigan — have been vastly concerned with education, for a number of reasons, both legitimate and not so much. For one thing, it is abundantly clear that traditional schools and traditional ways of teaching have been failing a huge number of students.

Anyone need only glance at test scores for Detroit's public schools to see that. But there are plenty of suburban and rural kids who have been falling through the cracks too.

This certainly always was true to some extent, but here's the difference: There were plenty of kids I grew up with in the 1960s who just didn't do well in school. But they could always get good-paying jobs on the assembly line or in warehouses.

Those jobs don't exist anymore, and there aren't nearly enough programs for those who fall through the cracks.

Democrats have traditionally called for more money for schools and school systems. Republicans, on the other hand, especially in Michigan, seem to see teachers' unions and public education themselves as the main problem.

In recent years, they've often gleefully been doing all they can to punish the unions and cut teacher salaries and benefits, partly in a covert effort to drive students to charter schools.

Some of these are owned by for-profit institutions. Twenty years ago, when the charter movement began, someone high in government told me there were all sorts of sleazeoids licking their chops and dreaming of getting their hands on some of the billions we spend on education. Some charters are better than the competing public schools; many are worse.

All of them are under-regulated, which is exactly what Republicans like. This sometimes has disastrous consequences for the students, but hey, that's life under laissez-faire.

Kristi Bowman, who has studied this issue for decades, thinks she has the main problem — and a solution — figured out.

For decades, Michigan state government and the schools believed they were in partnership with the federal government to provide the best education for all our young people.

Well, as Bowman outlines effectively here, it is breaking down. Her solution would be for the federal government to guarantee a minimum education quality standard, one the state would be free to add to or enhance.

She knows very well that something like that is never going to become law in the age of Donald Trump, and the right-wing ideological Congress and legislature we now have.

But Bowman has some ideas as to how to start to bring that about. Interestingly, neither the federal nor state constitutions spell out a specific right to an education.

Michigan's constitution does require the legislature to "maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools." But that doesn't say anything about a right to literacy, something the state of Michigan denies exists.

Bowman suggests arguing that the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides the right to "a minimal education quality." She would like a larger role for the federal government in public education, precisely to establish and support a minimum standard. "The children of this country deserve no less," she says.

She's right, of course, though she is more than sophisticated enough to know those arguments won't hold much water with the likes of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

There's no doubt that we do need a minimum national standard, and that this would be a huge improvement.

Still, I remain haunted by what a young and very bright charter school teacher asked me over lunch a few years ago:

"How do you teach a kid whose mom is a hooker and who lives in the back seat of her car?"

There's no answer in any curriculum guide to that. For some kids, any education reform will be just rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. That is, unless we tackle some major societal ills too.

You just couldn't make this up

You may recall Brian Banks, the slimiest state representative of modern times. Elected to the legislature after having committed eight felonies, Banks was then charged with sexually harassing a male aide.

You might have thought that would have meant trouble for him, but guess again. The generous taxpayers of the state of Michigan shelled out $85,622 to Dickinson Wright, a top-drawer Detroit law firm, to defend Banks.

When it became clear his actions were indefensible, the state then shelled out $11,950 more to settle out of court with the aide, Tramaine Cotton. Sadly, the apparently dim-witted voters then re-elected this creep. But he wasn't there long.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette soon filed four more felony charges against Banksy minor. To avoid hard time, he then agreed to resign from the legislature, barely a month into his term, as part of a plea bargain deal.

You might have thought that would mean we'd be done with him. Ho, ho. Late last month, the news came that Banks had created a new campaign committee and was raising money to run for the state Senate seat now occupied by Bert Johnson, a fellow convicted felon and a Highland Park Democrat.

Johnson is term-limited, but there could well be a special election to fill that seat before his term expires at the end of next year. The Senator is awaiting trial in federal court on charges of putting a fake employee on the state payroll.

You would think Mayor Mike Duggan would denounce Banks and encourage voters to support someone else.

He has taken sides in legislative races where he felt Detroit's best interests were at stake. You might think other top Democratic leaders would do whatever they could to prevent this creature from returning to further disgrace the legislature.

Certainly, they should do that. But don't hold your breath.

They are far more worried about "offending" black voters, and so they are patronizingly willing to coddle a criminal.

Know what? The black folks I'm lucky enough to call friends might respect someone more who told them the truth.