Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Tough Nerd Goes Back to School

My undergraduate minor in Political Science tells me that Republican Rick Snyder, self described tough nerd, will be the next governor of Michigan.

But, it doesn't take a degree from the University of Michigan to know that Michiganders (Michiganians?) want significant change in Lansing come November. For a variety of reasons, Michigan has been slowly and steadily losing its luster as a premier state with excellent government services, thriving private enterprise, and high quality of life. Michiganders want to return from the fall from grace and my funny bone tells me they are going to make the switch to red to get there.

A big part of that color swatch has to do with the current governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Michiganders have become weary of her inability to solve or even make a noticeable dent in the economic woes of the state that has the 2nd highest unemployment in the nation. To be fair, much of that has little to do with her efforts as governor. Old Rustbelt manufacturing is fading away in the global economy, and Michigan's less than innovative manufacturing firms have played second fiddle to companies that outsource operations to overseas factories at a fraction of the cost. There's simply little a governor can do to convince a Michigan company not to make a product or have a call center in another country where labor costs are literally pennies on the dollar.

Several months ago, Granholm even publicly came to terms that Michigan's economic recovery would not happen under her watch. Privately, I think she'd come to that conclusion years earlier. Regardless of her personal & private proclamations, voters have long laid the blame for Michigan's economic woes at her feet.

Democrat Virg Bernero, Snyder's General Election opponent, promises a continuation of most of Granholm's economic policies, though they have wildly different personal leadership styles. In fact, he is further to the left than Granholm, campaigning on creating a state-run bank & backed early and vigorously by the state's most powerful labor unions. After being launched into the national spotlight being dubbed as America's Angriest Mayor by CNN, Virg Bernero has promised to toss out the timidity & calculation of the Granholm administration and instead "fix" Michigan come hell or high water.

Despite his fiery rhetoric, all indications point to a gubernatorial GOP win in November. All polls, though they should be taken with a grain of salt, indicate Snyder will win. Not most polls. All polls. Furthermore, tens of thousands more people voted in the 5-way GOP primary for Snyder than in the 2-man Democratic Primary for Bernero.

But, this will be no cake walk for Snyder. He will still have to win on the campaign trail against an opponent who is likely to cream him in the 3 planned debates. If Snyder is a tough nerd, then Bernero is a defensive lineman on the New York Jets. It ain't gonna be pretty. The best Snyder could do is play up low expectations and manage not to get his helmet knocked off (Sorry Peyton).

Bernero has already begun the same attacks on Snyder as Granholm did on Republican Dick DeVos in the 2004 Election. Snyder, a wealthy businessman, has certainly shipped jobs overseas and managed a slew of corporate downsizing in his time in the private sector. Like DeVos, he's never been elected to any high public office and never felt the political backlash of putting people out of work or slashing their wages. That's likely to leave him vulnerable to a frustrated, out-of-work voting population who have been on the pink slip end of the global economy. Granholm handily defeated DeVos in 2006 over that very same issue, so logically there is plenty of opportunity for Bernero to do the same to Snyder.

So, in order to move the polls back & forth, both campaigns are gearing up for a fight. Many journalists have already concluded that this will be an ugly campaign season. But, voters cannot afford to be turned off by the impending negative ads because so much is at stake this election. That is why I have decided to give you a primary on Rick Snyder's education agenda. As the next governor, he will oversee a huge wave of education reforms and debates. He will potentially take over 92 of Michigan's worst schools. He will help determine Michigan school finance and revive the debate on privatization of public services. And, the issue of school choice, namely charterization and vouchers, is primed to take center stage in Lansing.

So how will this tough Nerd take on school reform? Here we go...


Like most conservatives, Snyder is concerned that the financial resources poured into Michigan schools have not yielded desired results. His white paper on school reform begins with a chart ranking Michighan's expenditures, ACT averages, and instructional salaries against other states. By this comparison, Michigan does not look good.

He is reviving the tried & true Republican argument that the performance of Michigan's schools is not necessarily tied to funding increases, but to productivity and accountability. He is likely to make the case that fixing schools doesn't necessarily mean giving them more money, but demanding better results from the money that they've already been given. Expect this to be a big theme in his education agenda. Do not expect significant funding increases to the School Aid Fund.

His "Remedies" can be summarized as such:

1- Invest in higher education.

Snyder clearly recognizes that Michigan's robust higher ed system should be a spring board for economic reform. He uses the word "invest" which is a euphemism for spending more money or at the very least sparing from significant cuts. Like any Republican, Snyder can't win in a primary by saying, "Hey guys, I wanna spend more money on colleges." GOP Primary voters just aren't cut like that.

"Invest" is a much more politically palpable term. And, it is one that can be defined in a variety of ways, providing him maximum flexibility in shaping higher ed. He could increase state revenue sharing to community colleges or universities. He could provide a means for them to procure more grants. Or, he could simply hold current state revenue sharing streams harmless.

2- Focus on performance outcomes.

Snyder's business acumen is probably the driving factor in his push to insist on measuring performance outcomes and a means of gauging progress on what he calls, adopting a P-20 education frame of mind. He wants more kids in Pre-K Programs, he wants more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics), and he wants greater collaboration between universities, community colleges, and private firms.

Let's break down each of those 3 levels in education.

I have no idea how he plans to get more kids in Pre-K programs, short of increasing funding for such programs or creating tax credits for parents who spend money on those programs. With the exception of those qualifying for Head Start, Pre-school is far from free. And usually, pre-school programs are only offered partial days, which means working parents have to pay for pre-School and day care at the same time. Michigan doesn't have the money to subsidize providers for pre school expenses, nor can Michigan afford to give parents tax credits, unless significant cuts are made elsewhere in state spending. He is a Republican though, so don't put it past him.

As for STEM in K-12, it sounds nice, but he might not have much to do there once in office. Michigan has already recently increased its graduation requirements for coursework completion. At the high school level, all students have to take 4 years of math, 3 years of science, and complete some manner of online learning. Any further major changes in policy would have to be enacted by the Board of Education. Also, as the Michigan is a participant in the Common Core Standards, the increased rigor in Math & Science course expectations are well on the way. English & Math standards have already been written. The most Snyder could do in this department is voice Michigan's continued support and participation.

As for higher ed, the governor has even less influence, particularly with the bit about credit transfers. The University of Michigan surely isn't going to accept some credits from a kid who took jewelry or hip hop dance from Wayne County Community College. Michigan's too bourgeoisie for that. If he wants greater collaborations between the community colleges & universities, he'll have to contend with all of their boards, regents, and presidents. Good luck with that.

He also wants to create a "system to transfer technology from the classroom to industry." I don't know what he means by "system", but private firms & government agencies already regularly pay universities for research and development. Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State University are extremely efficient at attracting grant dollars for R & D. It works out for both parties. Private firms get R & D on the cheap because they aren't paying their own full time employees to do the work. Universities benefit too, because they get their tuition paying students to put in hundreds of hours of essentially unpaid labor in the name of research. The most they'll get out of it financially is perhaps a modest stipend or a shot at an internship with the firm. The University in turn, pockets the cash to spend on research costs, provide scholarships, or add to their enormously well-funded endowments. Yes, ballin! So it would seem that a "system"is already well in place.

3 - Buy a school database.

Moving on, Snyder wants to use the same data system as the state of Florida. Long story short, it's a huge online database that tracks multiple data sources relevant to P-20 education. It tracks everything from student test scores, enrollment, demographics, and school finances, among other things. Most of this data is already available in Michigan, although in separate databases that aren't all user friendly or publicly accessible. This will be a valuable tool, if nothing else, to make the already available data easier to access and analyze.

But Snyder makes the case that this database will help parents in their decision making, as if parents already don't have access to relevant information about prospective schools for their children. Though it is not run by the state, the web site already provides parents with information similar to that provided by Florida's data system. Run by a non-profit association of state schools chiefs, School Matters publishes student performance on tests, demographics, & enrollments trends on every public school in the country. Most parents probably don't know about it, but it is there. What Snyder could do is push legislation that would require schools to publish this information themselves & provide it directly to parents. But, that won't happen, because that would essentially be an unfunded mandate. School leaders are already cutting back staff and slashing their budgets. I'm sure very few would be willing to dedicate resources and staff to publish reports that are already available online for free.

4. Reduce administrative overhead & provide more value for money.

Read: Consolidation, Privatization, & more privatization. Let's take these one at a time.

For a little while now there's been an idea jockeying around Lansing that there are too many school districts in Michigan, 549 to be exact. That's 549 superintendents, 549 compliments of central office staff, 549 school get the drift. The city of Warren, for example, despite being nearly a tenth of the population of Detroit has 6 school districts: Warren Consolidated, Fitzgerald, Centerline, Van Dyke, Warren Woods, & East Detroit. Having 6 school districts for a little over 100,000 residents creates a lot of overhead costs. Some lawmakers & policy makers in Lansing have suggested mandating a minimum enrollment count to qualify as a district. That might save some costs, but it would be a political bloodbath to merge small school districts whose communities are accustomed to running their own schools.

Also, naturally in consolidation, there is privatization; particularly in non-instructional services. Janitorial, transportation, food service, tech support, even clerical would qualify as non-instructional and Snyder wants districts to outsource all of those operations in a competitive biding process, known as RFP (request for proposal). So, if those 6 Warren school districts were ever to merge, Snyder wants them to award a contract to a company to provide janitorial services, as opposed to conducting that service in-house. Privatization, though at times unpopular, usually saves districts money on employee costs; sometimes even up to 10% or more. However there are plenty of cases where private companies have charged districts more than what those districts previously paid for those services as an in-house operation.

There are also concerns about quality too. Detroit Public Schools had well documented problems with food quality with their former food service manager, Aramark. Students and parents recounted horrible stories of cold food, putrid meat, and unsanitary conditions at dozens of schools. DPS ended up cancelling the Aramark contract, bringing food service operations in house and saving on costs.

Again, this is not always the case. Many of the smaller districts, for example, cannot handle the logistics of operating their own food service operations and have no choice but to outsource. Furthermore, the theory behind privatization includes the notion that if districts don't like the service, they can always fire the service provider and find a new one.

Still, Snyder wants even more privatization too, especially when it comes to employee compensation. There's little the state can do to cut salary costs. Those are determined by local districts. But the state can alter teacher retirement & health care insurance costs. Michigan already is set to create hybrid pension/401K system for newly hired teachers, saving the state money in the long term. But, I full well expect Snyder at some point to take a stab at doing away with the pension system altogether. Tyson vs. Holyfield ain't got nothing on that potential fight. Watch your ears!

Snyder also wants to pool health care insurance costs, probably into a one state-wide plan, competitively bid of course. Local unions don't want this, because it would eliminate their ability to negotiate employee health care premiums & co-pays with their districts. Andy Dillon, Virg Bernero's democratic primary rival, caught major flack from the unions for touting this idea. So don't expect the MEA or the AFT to get all warm 'n fuzzy on Rick.

5. Implement merit pay, close failing schools, & adopt a school.

As a career salesman, merit pay must seem a natural & logical compensation philosophy to Snyder. The guy who sells more cars should get paid more than the guy who sold less cars, right? Similarly, Snyder wants to pay teachers more who get students to perform on test scores. Merit pay is a land mine of a reform effort in the educational field, and it is actually a tool for reducing employee costs, not improving student performance (more on this in a future blog). Merit pay is an extremely experimental reform initiative and it has not been shown to significantly or consistently improve student achievement. Think of it this way. If you offered your child's 5th grade teacher $2,000 for increasing your child's reading proficiency on a test 7 months from now, do you really think that would make her teach your kid any better than she already is now? Doubtful. Business types don't get this about teachers. I highly doubt Snyder has any veteran classroom teachers advising him on education policy. But you know...the nerds always thought they knew more than their teachers anyway!

Snyder also wants to close failing schools and replace them with successful public or charter schools. This is not a new idea. My former Cass Tech classmate, State Representative Shanelle Jackson, D- Detroit, offered up a similar proposal on this months ago. It did not get traction in the legislature at the time. However, if Snyder is elected, she may get another crack at it and find a governor backing her up, if she's willing to cross the isle. Also, this action would be in line with the Federal School Improvement framework, which does give schools the option of handing over under performing schools to a charter company. Whatever piece of legislation is used, you can definitely expect some number under performing schools to turn charter under the Snyder administration.

Finally, Snyder wants to see more private firms form partnerships with public schools. Public schools get the benefit of providing students with more resources and learning opportunities. Private companies get the benefit of developing their future workforce and getting a tax break. Some school leaders have done this on a small, school by school basis. It would be nice to see an initiative like this statewide.


All in all, Snyder's education reform efforts will probably be centered on those financial reform initiatives mentioned earlier & less on academic reform initiatives. I find this to be refreshingly honest. Snyder knows he doesn't know much about the process of educating students. So, he doesn't go there. But, he does know how to run a financially stable & sustainable enterprise and knows how to effectively run organizations, albeit profit making ones. So, his reform efforts center on changing the organizational operation of schools. I full well expect him to appoint a state schools chief who will more or less drive education reform in regards to instructional improvement. I do not expect that person to have a traditional background in education administration.


What is surprising about Snyder's education platform is that he makes no mention of vouchers, private schools or home schools. Private & home schools are stalwart staples of the political right and there have been rumors that some interested parties are considering another run at a voucher ballot initiative with a conservative friendly state government. But Snyder makes absolutely no mention of it. Many of Snyder's primary opponents mentioned voucher or voucher-like policies in their campaigns. Apparently, at face value, Snyder's platform centers on improving public education through increases in efficiency & productivity and not supplanting it by private schools. This makes sense politically, as vouchers & home schools put a sour taste in the mouths of left of center voters.

Also amazingly, Snyder makes very little mention of charter schools. His white paper only uses the word "charter" one time. He doesn't call for the outright elimination on the cap on charter schools, but does say that he wants to replace failing public schools with charter companies that have a successful track record of student achievement. That places a very tight restriction on charter companies, most of whom operate schools that do not perform significantly better than traditional public schools. So, it might mean only a small handful of EMOs will have a chance at taking over failing schools or opening new schools. This is very different from his primary opponents who essentially wanted increases in charter schools as the bedrock of their education agendas. Republicans salivate at the mouth at the mention of charter schools, but Snyder's support of charters is rather tempered. This too is perhaps a valuable political strategy to appeal to moderate & independent voters, perhaps even some crossover Democrats too.

The once and future Executive

Will Snyder's education agenda "reinvent" Michigan schools? That still remains to be seen. Even if elected, Snyder will have to learn a different skill set as an elected executive over a public institution, which has its differences from that of a hired executive over a private company. Consider this: CEOs have near complete freedom to implement new policies & procedures in the companies they run. This is especially true of non-unionized work environments, such as Gateway Computers, the company Synder previously ran. A CEO essentially has to meet the expectations of a board of directors, often bodies of no more than a dozen people. And, a business' goal is quite simple: return increasing profits to its owners.

Being governor of a state is vastly different. A governor has to build consensus among groups that openly oppose each other. A governor often has limited power to make things happen, especially actions that affect thousands of people. The process of state government is intentionally slow, because it is a democratic institution that must take into account many differing points of view. A governor has to convince the masses of the voting public that what he is doing is right and that can be especially difficult if doing what is right is unpopular.

The metric on successful government also is far more complex than that of a business. A successful government operation has to have balanced budgets, reduced debt/deficits, provide quality service, reduce unemployment, promote economic growth, ensure civil equality, provide safety, the list goes on and on. If the governor makes too many unpopular decisions and neglects any one of those areas, the voting masses will put him out of office. This is critical to take into consideration, because significant reform measures don't often fit into neat, tidy 4 year terms. They may take two terms or two decades.

A classic example of this is in the modern era is the Governator, "Ahnold" Schwarzenegger. The popular action movie hero promised to go Terminator on the California state budget, liberal special interests, and broken government when he campaigned in the 2003 special gubernatorial election to oust Gray Davis. He vowed to take his Conan The Barbarian sword and slash the bloated California financial condition down to a girlie man. Seven years later, California still has one of the worst budget conditions in the country and has the 3rd highest unemployment rate in the country, superseded, by yours truly, the great state of Michigan. And, the Governator had several brawls against the teachers' and nurses' unions, emerging with far more than just a flesh wound. As an amateur movie buff, I feel compelled at this point to say that Schwarzenegger's shortcomings were entirely predictable. The Terminator got his butt kicked in literally every single Terminator movie. In fact, in Terminator 3, he even got his butt kicked by a girl.

Look on the bright side though. If a muscle bound action hero can't get the job done, surely a pocket protecting wearing, 3x college graduate by age 23 nerd can, right? People like nerds. Nerds do their homework. Nerds let you cheat off of them on tests. Nerds dress unfalteringly, which makes even the drably dressed look like fashion mavens. And while nerds don't usually get to take the head cheerleader to prom, their tax returns at the 20 year reunion usually look better than yours.

If Synder can steer clear of those Lambda Lambda Lambda parties, he can get elected with sufficient political capital to see most of his education agenda enacted over the course of his term.

Log on next Sunday for the next EduSpiel blogcast: The New Black Migration: Suburbs or Bust.

1 comment:

  1. Well written and thorough!

    I am a brand new home schooler, but from my understanding of Michigan home school law, we are better off than a lot of other states. I think Snyder may be taking an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to that issue.

    Concerning charter schools, it looks like he is playing it safe for now - I think that he will do just as much as charter school proponents push him to do. It appears that he is not opposed to removing caps, but he isn't going to make waves about it unless and until absolutely necessary.

    All in all, Snyder seems to be the middle of the road, right-but-not-TOO-right candidate that both dismayed extreme right wingers and dissatisfied Dems can vote for and still sleep at night. I hope that he will prove to be the transitional governor that helps Michigan move from blue to red on a more permanent basis ;-)