There’s been speculation that Robert Bobb might possibly stay on as Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit’s Public Schools. Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry has been thinking about the evolving nature of public education.
There’s been a flurry of speculation lately that perhaps the best choice to replace Robert Bobb as Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools might be ... Robert Bobb himself.
Bobb’s contract expires at the end of June. While he has faced endless financial problems, his main frustration during his two-year stint running the schools seems to have been a court decision that his powers did not extend to determining what kids actually learn.
The academic curriculum, in other words. However, that has been changed by the new Emergency Financial Manager law. Last Thursday, Bobb said in an interview with the Detroit News that he wasn’t lobbying to keep the job, but added, “I do drool when I think of the pace of change we could achieve under the new law.“
That same day, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Dteroit Mayor Dave Bing about a number of topics, including education.
He said he admires much of what Bobb had done. “He made a lot of hard decisions that had to be made, and I respect him for that. He had an impossible job from a fiscal standpoint.”
However the mayor didn’t think the emergency financial manager deserved an A. He noted that whether out of necessity or not, Bobb had alienated teachers and people in the community.
And Bing felt that it was clearly time for Bobb to go. Indeed, the governor’s office also seems to be lukewarm at best to the idea of his staying around. But the mayor said something else I found even more interesting about public education in Detroit.
What may indeed be happening is that in the future, most public education in the city will take place apart from the trouble-plagued Detroit public schools. “People are now talking about systems of education, rather than DPS,” the mayor told me.
What he meant by that was this: “There are private schools, parochial schools, charters. You know, forty percent of our kids now go to charters -- forty percent! -- and that number is only going to grow.” Charter schools, are, by the way, alternative public schools. Incidentally, even many fairly sophisticated adults don’t understand exactly what they are. They are not private in any sense.
They receive state money and have to meet statewide standards, including the use of certified teachers. Regardless of how you feel about traditional public education, it is clear that the people of Detroit have overwhelmingly rejected their school system. Mayor Bing feels that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them. Or, as he put it, “if they are going to lose students out of DPS, we don’t want to lose them out of the city of Detroit.“
Detroit is a special case, but there are communities all over this state where traditional public school systems are losing popularity and the newer public schools, mostly chartered by colleges and universities, are gaining ground. Perhaps we all may need to rethink our concept of public education along these lines:
Supporting a particular school system or bureaucracy should no longer be the name of the game. Instead, we should be looking for and supporting the system of public education that best educates our kids, whatever that is, and however that may be.
Detroit was hit last month with census numbers worse than anyone expected, which may worsen the city’s economic crisis. Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry talked with the mayor about where his city now stands.
I went to see Detroit Mayor Dave Bing yesterday afternoon to discuss the state of his city. It’s been a bruising few weeks for Detroit. The census showed a population loss considerably greater than expected -- which means a further loss of both federal and state dollars. The governor’s budget has yet to be approved, but it seems clear that it means more cuts in revenue sharing.
Nevertheless, I found the mayor upbeat, candid and energetic. He’s convinced the census missed people, and is going to do all he can to get the count adjusted. But for now, he has to plan as if the number is going to stay at seven hundred and thirteen thousand.
There’s no doubt in his mind what Detroit needs most. “Jobs are the key,” he said. There are some hopeful signs. General Motors, Blue Cross, Quicken Loans and some other firms have announced plans to add jobs recently. But the city has a long way to go.
When the recession was at its peak, Mayor Bing made headlines when he said that he thought the city’s true unemployment rate was as high as forty-five percent, when you counted workers who are so discouraged they aren‘t even taking part in the labor force. What does he think it is now? “Still about the same,” he said.
“There are some signs the country is coming out of the recession, but that hasn’t really translated into jobs in Detroit.”
I asked the mayor, himself a former successful businessman, about Governor Rick Snyder’s theory that lowering taxes will help bring a new flood of jobs. He smiled. “Well, it should help,” he said.
But he added that maximizing profits doesnn’t always mean adding jobs. The mayor, who took office after a special election following the resignation of Kwame Kilpatrick, has been in office almost two years now. What does he think is his greatest accomplishment?
He said, “reducing the deficit from more than $330 million dollars to $155 million. Given the economy, that was really a Herculean task.”
Unfortunately, he fears the deficit may now rise somewhat, “if everything in the governor’s budget becomes stark reality.”
I told him there was speculation that sooner or later, Detroit would need an Emergency Financial Manager. “Everything we do here day to day is to avoid that happening,” Bing said. But he knows he can‘t completely rule out the possibility. If that were to happen, would he take the job if it were offered? My impression was that he would. In fact, the mayor added that the new, tougher financial manager law would make it easier to do some of the things that need to be done.
Whether or not that happens, he intends to keep fighting. He’s already announced his intention to run for re-election in two years; saying turning things around will take more than one term.
If he is re-elected, Dave Bing would be seventy-four by the end of his second term. Does he expect to see a point where Detroit saw true prosperity again? The former basketball superstar smiled.
He believes in making progress, he said, a layup at a time, not in trying for grandstand, three-point plays. “Solvency. I think solvency is possible.” Prosperity is further away.
We’re living today in a confusing and somewhat frightening time. Michigan is in trouble, economically. Trouble of a different kind than we’ve been through before. The longtime mainstay of our economy, the automotive industry, will never again be what it was.
This has plunged us from one of the nation’s richer states to one of its poorer ones. State government is finally facing a financial crisis it tried to ignore for years, and the governor is proposing changes that seem radical and sometimes hard to understand.
Beyond that, education at all levels is in crisis. We learned last month that our largest city has suffered a staggering population loss over the last decade. There are real questions about whether Detroit and other cities, communities and school districts are going to have to be taken over by Emergency Financial Managers.
Understanding all this is vitally important in order to make key decisions for our own lives. Should we trust the public schools? Should we buy a house? Where should we live?
And even, should we leave the state?
We clearly need thoughtful, intelligent and easily accessible journalism to help make sense of these and other events -- and need it possibly more than at any other time in our history.
Yet journalism is in trouble too. Journalists, if they do their jobs right, are never very popular. Much of the time, we’re bringing you bad news, and some of the time, we are obnoxious about it.
But right now, we’re having trouble doing that. Digging our news is an expensive, labor-intensive job, and the vast majority has always been done by newspapers. Yet newspapers are facing a deep crisis of their own, thanks in large part to the internet revolution, and our changing lifestyles. Newspapers have been supported historically by advertising, and much of that has melted away to cyberspace. We also don’t read newspapers as much as we used to People read news on the internet, but internet providers produce little news. They merely collect it -- mainly from our shrinking newspapers.
That doesn’t mean some broadcast and even online publications don’t produce quality journalism. But in terms of content, it is comparatively small. Last night I spoke at the Detroit area Society of Professional Journalists annual banquet. Michigan Radio won a number of awards, and an encouraging amount of good journalism was on display. But attendance was smaller than last year. Some people have left the profession. Some companies no longer buy tickets.
Yet there were still an impressive corps of men and women there who work long hours for usually not much pay to find out what we need to know and shape it into an interesting package.
Those included the journalist of the year, John Carlisle, aka Detroitblogger John, a suburban newspaper editor by day who roams Detroit’s meanest streets in search of compelling tales at night.
There’s Mac Gordon, who has been covering the auto industry since 1944, and hundreds of others who try to keep democracy informed. Despite shrinking pay and opportunities, they’re still out there, speaking truth to power and trying to get us to pay attention.
Without journalists, we’d be in far deeper trouble than we are now. And we wouldn’t have the beginnings of a clue why.
There are cities, unions, and teachers around the state that are outraged at Governor Snyder’s proposal to cut benefits. This has got Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry wondering why nobody’s talking about raising taxes…
Last night a gentleman who appeared to be in his late sixties approached me after Michigan Radio’s Issues and Ale event in Royal Oak. He appeared frustrated. “My father always taught me that taxes were the price we pay for civilization,” he said.
“Why don’t people seem to realize that today?”
The answer is that taxes are, indeed, the price we pay for a civilized society.
Whether he realized it or not, his father was echoing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said exactly those words back in 1904. That doesn’t mean all taxes are good. What it does mean is that without our tax money, we wouldn’t have any schools or roads or policemen or local and national parks.
However, about thirty years ago, politicians began telling us that we were the most overtaxed generation in history, and we came to believe it. The truth is that Americans pay a far smaller proportion of their incomes in taxes than people in most modern countries. We even pay far less than we used to.
Back in the Kennedy Administration, the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent. Nobody pays even a third of their income to Uncle Sam now. We do pay additional state and local taxes.
But thanks to the anti-tax fever, our politicians have cut taxes, and then cut again. However, they haven’t cut services very much.
That’s because voters don’t want to give up anything they are getting, they just don’t want to pay for them. Oh, they are willing to have other people’s benefits cut, just not theirs.
So local and state governments have used up their rainy day funds, shoved expenses off to future years and engaged in accounting tricks. But now that’s not working any more. Local governments are running out of cash, fast.
Governor Rick Snyder is proposing to slash revenue sharing payments, and make some of it dependent on cities doing more to further cut expenses, or as he puts it, adopt best practices.
The impact of all this has many communities and many school districts teetering on the brink of insolvency. Democrats say they are outraged at the governor’s plans to slash services.
However, I don’t hear them saying, “look. Times are hard, but good schools and roads are a necessity. So those of us who are still working are going to have to pay a little more to maintain them, to keep things up till we have a better future.”
Last night I challenged State Senator Bert Johnson about this. A liberal Democrat whose district includes Highland Park and the Grosse Pointes, he represents some of the poorest people in the state -- and some of the wealthiest. He took exception to my charge that Democrats hadn’t been willing to support tax increases.
“That information is on a number of websites,” he said. Well, that isn’t the same thing as loudly calling for those who can afford it to pay. Communities and people all over the state are in the process of finding out that there really is no free lunch.
The question is whether we want our needs and those of our children neglected, or whether we are willing to pay the price of having a civilized society.
While historians debate just when and why Detroit began to decline, it’s much easier to say what its high point was:
July 28, 1951. That was the official two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Detroit’s founding, and the city was at its peak.
Detroit had nearly two million people. It was rich, vibrant and strong. President Harry Truman came all the way from Washington to speak -- a rare occurrence then -- and the city then celebrated with a five-hour long parade. And there was other good news, too.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was being revived. Founded when the city had less than two hundred thousand people, it had been disbanded during the Great Depression. But now it was back, and on October 18th, it thrilled fans with its first concert.
Everybody knew then that to be a truly world-class city, you had to have a world-class symphony orchestra.
Back in the jazz age, Detroit had one of the nation’s best orchestras. They had been the first orchestra to have a concert broadcast on the radio. They were regulars at Carnegie Hall. And for eight years, they were broadcast regularly to a nationwide audience.
Then hard times came, and people forgot how important a symphony is for a while. Some people evidently lost sight of that again last year, when the symphony’s season was destroyed by a six-month long strike caused by money problems.
The symphony has huge debts, big deficits, and a shrinking donor base. Everyone agreed the musicians had to take a massive pay cut, but the question was, how massive?
While I am not an expert on cultural economics, it is clear that neither side did much to help their public image during the work stoppage, and management’s handling of public relations was especially bad, as one board member admitted to me.
The trick now is to not only bring the patrons back, but increase and enlarge the base. The orchestra now probably will be able to make a deal with the banks to whom it owes $54 million in real estate loans. But that’s a temporary solution. What the symphony really needs to do is convince the public to begin coming to their concerts and donating to keep this cultural resource. Anne Parsons, the president of the symphony, thinks the only way to do that is through community outreach. It’s hard to disagree. These days, three-quarters of the metropolitan area’s population and ninety percent of the money is outside the city limits.
My guess is that the symphony’s future involves realizing that the modern definition of Detroit is not the city limits, but the four million people who live in the metro area. They may also need to broaden their idea of programming. Purists may like to think that it is all about traditional classical music. But that music itself was avant-garde once upon a time. There’s an old saying that the railroads lost their way when they forgot that they were really in the transportation business, and couldn’t afford to be tied to a nostalgic model.
If the Detroit Symphony Orchestra takes that to heart, the odds will increase that it will revive, and hopefully, in the long-term, thrive.
Two years ago, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Voters from liberal Ann Arbor to staunchly conservative Ottawa County supported this change.
Some, to be sure, saw this as opening the door to a complete legalization of marijuana. However, they appear to have been a minority. Most people seem to have felt that those who are legitimately suffering from disease such as glaucoma ought to be able to use the drug in cases where it could ease their pain.
But the devil is always in the details, and we probably should have foreseen that administering this law was going to be an unholy mess. Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press took a comprehensive look at how the medical marijuana law has been working.
To nobody’s surprise, their answer was: Not very well. The state is struggling with a huge backlog of applications to grow the stuff.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have been going after people who may be falsely claiming to be growing and selling pot for medical use, and there are also rumors that certain physicians are happy to certify that most anybody qualifies to use marijuana for “medical” purposes.
On top of that, neither the constitutional amendment -- or any other law -- has made it clear where medical marijuana is supposed to come from. Part of the problem is that marijuana is a controlled substance whose use is illegal under federal law.
So, basically, the original source of any pot supply has got to be illegal, even if the state of Michigan approves someone to grow marijuana for medical reasons. There is also, so far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to ensure purity or quality control of the supply.
Basically, then, we’ve got a system of something approaching anarchy when it comes to medical marijuana.
So, what do we do about it? The Free Press sensibly argues in favor of setting up a state-approved distribution network. They would then charge licensing fees which could then be used for the costs of administering the system, and what must be a rapidly growing bureaucracy connected with it. There might also be streamlined mechanisms for approval similar to what pharmacies use for other drugs.
These are all sensible ideas, on paper. However -- is the state really in a place or a position to create or vastly expand an administrative bureaucracy? No matter how foolproof a system we devise, people are going to try to get around it. We’re being told by the governor that we can’t fund schools and colleges the way we used to. We can’t give tax credits to the working poor, or to the movie industry.
Do we really want to spend our scarce resources chasing down casual potheads? I have no desire to use marijuana or any other drug, and even less desire to have someone high crash into my car.
But I am wondering if the most sensible approach right now might be a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” except in cases of the grossest abuse. We are in an age of limits, and Michigan can handle only so many crises at one time. My guess is that regulating the medical marijuana law isn’t the biggest problem we have.
I had a interesting conversation yesterday with Joe Schwarz, one of the best-informed, multi-talented men in public life in this state. After a stint as mayor of his native Battle Creek, Schwarz spent sixteen years in the state senate, where he was immensely knowledgeable on education policy and finance.
That was, of course, back in the era before term limits. Schwarz is also one of those people whose resume could fill a box. He’s also had a career in the U.S. Navy, and as a spy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He ran for governor once and congress twice, finally winning a single term in 2004.
Schwarz’s problem was never the general election. Every time he got to one of those, he won easily. But he had trouble in Republican primaries. He is a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, but also believes in funding education, and that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare.” Nor does he always suffer fools gladly.
By the way, I didn’t mention his day job. He is an otolaryngologist, which we civilians call an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and is still happily practicing medicine.
That is, when he isn’t teaching at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Schwarz understands health care issues, and I was curious about our medical school explosion.
The U of M has a medical school; Wayne State has one; Michigan State has two; Oakland University and Beaumont Hospital have started one, and Western Michigan is now starting one.
Is that too many? Will we be producing too many doctors?
That’s a good question, the good doctor told me, but not the most important one. When all these medical schools are up and running, they’ll be producing something like six hundred and ninety doctors a year, trained largely at state expense.
If current trends continue, about half will eventually leave the state and practice elsewhere. My guess, given our situation, is that the real figure will be considerably higher.
There are areas of this state which are under-served by physicians; other places, like the rich sections of Oakland County, where doctors are thick on the ground. But the biggest problem is what the new doctors are specializing in. What’s needed most are family practitioners. These days, fewer than five percent of new doctors want to go into family practice, in large part because they make less than specialists.
Joe Schwarz has a solution for that: Michigan should offer full-ride scholarships to fifty students a year interested in family practice, or maybe pediatrics. In return, they’d agree to practice medicine in this state for at least eight years. Otherwise, they’d have to pay Michigan back the two hundred thousand or so it cost to train them.
That might cost the state five million or so a year. But it strikes me as excellent public policy, and virtually pocket change in a state that spends nearly two billion a year on prisons.
Reinventing Michigan means more than just cutting taxes; we also need to invest for the future. My guess is that Governor Snyder put some money aside for his kids’ education.
Investing in family doctors sounds to me like a good way to invest in our entire state.