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West Michigan Diary: Shake up education

Recently, I spent a few weeks in western Michigan where I spent the first 30 years of my life.

My commentary on Michigan residents’ obesity drew some interesting comments. To paraphrase two of the responses: “If you hate Michigan so much, why don’t you stay in Minnesota?”

Ah yes. Making a critical observation about something is an expression of hate. I see. But some miss the lesson that we can learn a lot by making comparisons, noting differences, and asking questions. One of the greatest studies of America, for example, was made by a visitor from France, Alexis de Tocqueville. An outsider (or an insider who has been away for a while), can spot things that are hard for an insider to see.

But to the question – why would anyone ever leave Michigan? – people leave any state for a number of possible reasons. They include educational opportunities, family, the weather, and of course, economic opportunities. Does anyone else remember how, in the 1980s, people left for Texas in droves? The Lone Star state is still attracting residents from around the country with its strong economy – the growth of which has put the rest of the nation to shame.

For a while, Michigan led the nation ( perhaps it still does) in the number of people who moved out relative to the number of people who move in. The lousy economy was to blame, much more than cloudy skies. Give Gov. Granholm some credit for recognizing the need to do something. Her “cool cities” initiative was fluff, but it showed she knew that in a mobile era, states need to be competitive.

What can Michigan’s political leaders do to make the state more attractive? They can’t do much about the weather, so forget trying to attract people who want sunshine 300 days a year with no snow. But they should do something.

My friends at the Mackinac Center have put forth some ideas, which I commend to you. And here’s my back-of-the-envelope proposal for making Michigan more attractive: Turn K-12 education in the state from a top-down, government-owned bureaucratic system into a dynamic industry filled with leaders who are free to pick and choose what works best for their schools.

I don’t envision some modest school choice measure that is limited to poor people (Milwaukee or Cleveland come to mind) – or even one that will eventually reach into the middle class (Indiana).

By all means, enact some sort of universal school choice program. But equally important, shake up the supply side. Change government schools. Drastically. Give principals the ability to hire the best teachers they can find, regardless of whether those teachers have a certificate earned by trudging through the ed-school curriculum. Let them pay the physics teachers more than the gym teacher–and fire the non-performers.

Make it easy for educational entrepreneurs to pick up buildings that the government schools aren’t using. In short, let there be as much diversity in schooling as there is in, say, the restaurant business.

These sorts of changes won’t in themselves restore Michigan to greatness, but they’re a start. They may produce a more educated citizenry, and they’ll almost certainly result in smarter spending habits.