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Phil's column

Phil Power is founder and chairman
of the Center for Michigan.

Michigan still needs action on schools, universities, Detroit

It is what it is.

I am referring, of course, to the political firestorm that has engulfed Michigan ever since Gov. Rick Snyder announced he would sign Right To Work (or Freedom To Work, if you prefer) when legislation ending the union shop reaches his desk.

Naturally, we all wish we could live in a more perfect world, one where the lion lies down with the lamb, where one political overreach doesn’t beget a counter-overreach, where partisan discussions aren’t always hijacked by the extremists on both sides, and where management and labor collaborate to the benefit of both.

But perfect worlds don’t exist. And the anger, mistrust and ill-will spawned by the RTW debate will now poison Michigan policy-making, maybe for years to come.

It is what it is.

Meanwhile, life will go on. And there is much important work to do to get our state back on track, to lay the groundwork for our future prosperity, to sniff out the places where things can actually get done, even amidst the current political chaos and paralysis:

* For example, Michigan’s entire system of investing in human capital is in urgent need of reform and improvement.

The customers of our public, private, charter and online school industry – students, parents, employers – still want and deserve far better learning performance than they’ve been getting.

We need to stimulate a sensible discussion about what to do about our worst-performing public schools; the Education Achievement Authority bill now under consideration needs to be carefully thought through.

I worry that the kids who are being badly served by our worst schools deserve a reform package more carefully planned than one is likely to receive in a crowded lame-duck legislative session.

* We also need to realize the only way to move the performance needle in our schools is to support early childhood learning programs. But the state’s pre-K program aimed at poor four-olds, the Great Start Readiness Program, gets only $109 million in state support – barely a blip compared to the $14 billion Michigan spends on our K-12 school system.

It’s disgraceful that 30,000 children who are eligible for it have to be left out for lack of slots.

Many, including the business-led Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw Township) are calling for sharply increased spending here.

We need the political space and sanity to address this problem.

* And we need to do something about Michigan’s disgraceful years-long strangling of support for our community colleges and universities. We’re pretty close to leading the nation in reducing state support for higher education in recent years — a policy choice that has led directly to big tuition increases and skyrocketing student debt.

Amid all the chaos, we also need to notice that two terrible pieces of legislation have been slipped into the eleventh hour agenda in Lansing. They should be stopped or (Gov. Snyder, are you listening?) vetoed.

One would allow health-care providers to refuse to provide services for patients when they have a “moral” objection.

The other, now on the governor’s desk, would require women seeking insurance to purchase an additional abortion rider, something aimed directly at poor women who wish to exercise their right to end an unwanted pregnancy.

The conscientious objection bill is especially damaging and redundant. Michigan law already provides for conscientious objection to providers who don’t want to provide abortion services. But make no mistake about it, the pending bill is aimed squarely at birth control … a practice used by the vast majority of sexually active women.

While we’re at it, it’s no coincidence that at exactly the same time we’re fighting over RTW, it’s becoming more and more likely that Detroit will slip into bankruptcy.

Maybe Right to Work is the best thing for Michigan workers; maybe it’s the worst. But everyone should be able to agree that it is intolerable to see our largest city going broke, captured by politicians and interest groups slow-walking towards restructuring.

Michigan needs an urban agenda for all its cities from Benton Harbor to Flint to Ecorse. We don’t have it.

No one can deny that the passions aroused by Right To Work are very, very strong. But Michigan still has lots of problems that won’t go away, regardless of what happens to RTW. Especially now, we need the sanity and common sense to address them.

That, too, is what it is.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via

7 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Al

    Thanks Phil, You are so right. there are several items on the state agenda that would have benefited more of our people than right to work. All this shows is where the leaders of the house and Senate have their hands. IN DEEP POCKETS.

  2. norm

    Much truth to what you say Mr Power, seems strange that the gov has spent so much time over the last week tring to justify what for two years he thought was to devisive. His and the legislators who introduced and passed a law in less than 5 hours without regard to the short and long term consequences have shown what is important, party ideoligy/rich donors etc. It will be interesting to see if the gov can build trust with those he just shunned so as to achieve other more important taskes. Or perhaps the gov and his cronies will like how RTW worked that we get EAA on wed morning, EM on wed afternoon and what ever else the gov and his pals want on thursday. Ruling is so much easier than govrning.

  3. Duane

    Mr. Power has offered so much that deserves comment, each could be a posting on its own.
    Mr. Power again likes to use his pen to belittle what he doesn’t like, “where partisan discussions aren’t always hijacked by the extremists on both sides, and where management and labor collaborate to the benefit of both”.
    Mr. Power is so quick to belittle all those who are in support of RTW as being ‘extremists’, with that attitude why should we expect there to be an open and civil discussion on any issue before our community?

    “And the anger, mistrust and ill-will spawned by the RTW debate will now poison Michigan policy-making, maybe for years to come.” Mr. Power can only see what he wants, he is unwilling to acknowledge RTW was not an active issue until Proposal 2 was put on the ballot and so soundly defeated. It seems that Mr. Power only wants to place blame, not resolve issues.

    Mr. Power can only see people as, “…human capital ” to be invested in. I learned long ago that people are so much more than ‘capital’. Rather than being cogs in a process, people can be creative change their world. Capital is simply a place put money and look for a return.
    Mr. Power wants “better learning performance “,”move the performance needle”, but does he even know what performance he wants? “being badly served by our worst schools deserve a reform “, does he really want reform since we have been having that for the past 40 years? If he were truly interested he would first want to know what works and why, before asking for reform.
    “strangling of support for our community colleges and universities.” Is this Mr. Power’s code words for spend more of other people’s money with no idea what that money should achieve? I wonder if MR. Power can be specific on what those schools are suppose to achieve with all of the money he wants spent on them.

    “…two terrible pieces of legislation have been slipped into the eleventh hour agenda in Lansing. They should be stopped…” Mr. Power wants and wants more, I wonder why he thinks it is so important that they should only do what he wants?

    “aimed directly at poor women who wish to exercise their right to end an unwanted pregnancy.” Again Mr. Power believes he knows what is in the hearts and minds of those he disagrees with, he simply will not accept that they have legitimate and thought-out concerns. “But make no mistake about it, the pending bill is aimed squarely at birth control”, it is apparent that Mr. Power deems something so invasive as equivalent of a condom. I wonder what he considers a miscarriage.

    “But everyone should be able to agree that it is intolerable to see our largest city going broke,” why? Haven’t the Detroiters had decades to create the situation they are in, haven’t they contributes to the conditions of their city and schools, haven’t they chosen to spend as they have, haven’t they even gotten companies to move their whole facilities and forcing employees downtown at their personal cost and inconvenience? If the rest of the State pays and pays isn’t it the rest of the taxpayers that are sacrificing so Detroiter can continue what they want and what got them to this situation? I accept that to Mr. Power it maybe only money and he has ‘good intentions’ to spend that money on, but the reality is that that money is coming from people who have made other choices and sacrifices. Mr. Power wants and wants more seeming not to care why more and more money is being spent and getting less and less for it.
    “Michigan needs an urban agenda for all its cities from Benton Harbor to Flint to Ecorse.” It is apparent that Mr. Power only cares about the exceptions and not the successes. He would rather keep spending other people’s money on things that aren’t working then trying to find out what works and why and how others can apply that knowledge.
    Mr. Power wants and wants but never seems to care enough to learn why something is or isn’t working. He seems to only want his way and cannot hear what anyone else has to say.

  4. David Waymire

    Worth noting that the Personal Property Tax repeal now before the governor will cut business taxes by another $300 million when phased in, making the additional investments in college, early childhood and cities we need impossible.

  5. Eric K. Foster

    Good policy-oriented view, Mr. Power and the most notable aspect of what you said in that regard is how RTW poisions and impedes a process that can bring sound policy-oriented solutions to the list of problems you cited.

  6. Art Rose

    Well, we got action. Now have “concealed carry” in the schools. Discipline and behavior should improve considerably. Improving schools, that would be beyond this administration, whose only concept is to reduce government ( and I suppose community) involvement in education. And Michigan continues on the road to becoming Michissippi.

  7. Art Rose

    C’mon Phil…. This is Michigan. We don’t care about education. we only care about eggs before they are human. the rightward turn of our allegedly “moderate” guv is unmistakable and unparalleled.

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