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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

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