As a long-time participant and observer in Michigan public policy and politics, I consider the 2018 gubernatorial election to be a watershed moment for the future of our state.
After years of economic difficulties caused by the near implosion of the auto industry accompanied by massive disinvestment in public goods like education and infrastructure, Michigan has declined from a leading state to a lower tier state across an array of indicators. Leadership can change that. In 2018 the nation and world will be looking to Michigan to see if an affirmative alternative vision to that of Donald Trump’s around creating jobs and restoring hope to our citizens can prevail.
My Building Michigan Fund commissioned a poll conducted by the Mellman Group, one of the nation’s most respected and credible Democratic pollsters, making this poll results perhaps more reliable than the torrent of in-state polls being churned out now. The poll asked questions of 600 Democratic primary voters and 600 general election voters at the end of October, and had a margin of error of + or - 4% in each. The results suggest that there is work ahead for voters to determine the strongest Democratic candidate, but that the Democrats have an excellent chance of prevailing in November 2018.
Another encouragement to Democrats, Donald Trump is viewed very unfavorably 67% of the general election electorate, and not just by Democrats—59% of Independents have a very unfavorable opinion. In the Democratic primary, the poll suggested that Gretchen Whitmer is a strong candidate; she was viewed favorably by 31% of primary voters and unfavorably by only 2%. She still remains unknown by most voters, with a 33% “hard ID.”
Andy Levin, who I was encouraged to see considering a run, (having worked closely with him and know him to have deep commitment and history of delivery on civil rights, worker retraining, creating a new clean energy future, and other important directions for our state) also did very well. He was viewed favorably by 26% of primary voters and unfavorably by just 2%. Whitmer garnered 30% and Levin 27% in a simulated primary, to 7% for Abdul El-Sayed with Levin added to already announced candidates. Bill Cobbs and Sri Thanadar were not significant factors in voters’ minds.
Abdul El-Sayed is less well know to traditional Democratic primary voters, 60% of whom are 60 years old or older. He was viewed favorably by 16% of the primary electorate. However he does very well with young voters, an important consideration when energizing new voters and mobilizing one’s own electorate helped both Bernie Sanders (MI 2016 primary) and President Trump win in Michigan
The poll was taken before the Detroit primary and did not include Mayor Duggan, who has insisted he will not run for governor.
In a general election match-up, both Whitmer and Levin bested Schuette by four to five points, both before and after respondents heard the candidates’ messages. And encouraging for Democrats, Schuette has a high unfavorability rating among general election voters. 29% of general election voters have a favorable view of Schuette, but already 26% of voters have an unfavorable view—almost as high a number as Fieger’s. This suggests a great opening — if Democrats run the right kind of campaign.
And what would that campaign look like? The poll suggested that voters want to hear how candidates will raise their standard of living and focus on core economic issues. Voters responded very well to messages around creating jobs and fighting to protecting public education— key parts of Gretchen Whitmer’s message.
Authenticity seems key. For example, the strongest message for Levin involved him demanding universal health care based on his own experience as a two-time cancer survivor.
I encourage all Democrats and independents troubled by the divisive practices and rhetoric emanating from the very top of our political system and by inequality getting so extreme that it threatens democracy itself to get involved in the political process now.
Examine the candidates for governor, go see them speak and tell them where you believe Michigan needs to go to protect our environment and restore our infrastructure, educational systems, and economy. Then help them out.
The more who participate, the better candidate we are likely to come out with.
The Latest from John Austin: Michigan’s future at stake in fixing public education
The latest news from Michigan’s classrooms continues to disturb. The state’s 2017 M-STEP student test scores show academic performance flagging.
Relative to other states, Michigan’s education performance has been plummeting for years. We are now 41st in the nation in 4th grade reading, 37th in 8th grade math. Our African-American fourth graders have the lowest reading scores in the nation.
So what’s broken and how do we fix it? We actually know the answers.
Reports have been stacking up like cordwood in recent years, including that of the governor’s commission. Numerous credible examinations of Michigan’s education system have reached similar conclusions about both problems and solutions. To reverse Michigan’s educational freefall we must do two things.
Overhaul the way we finance schools to provide the resources needed to meet the very different learning needs of every student, and
Bring quality and performance to the educational chaos engendered by Michigan’s free-booting school choice and charter policies.
We were told the same thing two years ago by Massachusetts’ Paul Reville ‒ leader of the business coalition that drove that state’s reforms, who then implemented them as State Education Commissioner. Reforms that have put the Bay State first in the nation in school performance.
At a Lansing educational policy summit organized by Michigan State University, Reville laid out their recipe. Key to Massachusetts’ success was high learning standards for all students (which Michigan does have)—but followed by a funding model that sent different resources to schools based on the cost and needs of helping differentially situated students to meet high standards.
Massachusetts also couples new state demands ‒ whether high school exit requirements, 3rd grade literacy, or school turnaround efforts ‒ with the tools, training and support for educators to deliver. Finally, he was flabbergasted that we would allow new charter schools to open if they did not deliver better learning outcomes, and weren’t part of a coherent plan to improve a community’s education system.
Publicly he told the assembled group, which included representatives of Michigan charter and choice school lobbies ‒ “Why would you do this? These are your taxpayer’s dollars being wasted.” Privately he told me. “John, I had no idea what you were up against here.”
The recent governor’s commission reached consensus on most of these same common sense solutions. We echoed the calls made in every credible report for an adequate level of funding and a differential funding model like Massachusetts where more money flowed to meet greater learning needs of poor children, special needs and non-English speaking learners.
We said state reform priorities had to be backed with resources and tools so teachers could get the job done. We even proposed abolishing the State Board of Education (on which I then served) to provide stronger accountability through the governor for education improvement.
But the Commission backed away from a necessary recommendation to bring quality and order to the chaos of our “marketplace” of educational choice – chaos that is demonstrably hurting educational outcomes, and embarrassing us nationally.
Michigan’s school choice policies make no financial nor educational sense. For example, while Michigan’s school age population has declined by more than 200,000 students over a dozen years, hundreds more schools have opened. Result: 70 percent of all school districts, including dozens of charter schools, have lost students. Losing students, schools lose dollars, cut staff and programs, and learning is diminished.
It would be one thing if the new schools competing for students educated kids better. But according to Education Trust Midwest, charter enrollment has grown 75 percent in the last decade, but more than 80 percent of charters perform worse than the state’s anemic averages in both math and reading. The U.S. Department of Education also says Michigan has an “unreasonably” high representation of Michigan’s charters on the state’s failing schools list. And while Detroit Public Schools rank last in the nation in 8th grade math scores for African Americans ‒ 67 percent of statewide charter districts perform even worse than DPS.
New unlimited cyber schools aren’t helping. Since caps were lifted, cyber-only charter enrollment has quadrupled despite growing evidence of poor educational performance, particularly among poor and minority students (though they still pocket $7,000+ per student with a much less costly delivery model). And recent studies indicate that while there may be non-academic reasons for cross-boundary school choice (which now is practiced by over 100,000 Michigan students, or 1-in-16) there are no academic benefits.
Given the consequences of this educational “wild west,” there was majority support on the governor’s commission for a recommendation that would establish ‒ as in our healthcare system – a community driven certificate of need process that would allow communities to have a say in who gets to open a school in their backyards, and some assurance that it would deliver quality learning.
Why was this recommendation derailed?
The same reason the key piece of a bipartisan legislative package to fix Detroit’s schools was torpedoed last summer. At the last minute, the Republican House of Representatives wiped out a provision creating a Detroit Schools Education Commission ‒ to have been appointed by Detroit’s mayor.
That commission would have managed for quality and accessibility all public schools, both charter and traditional public schools. The proposed commission was essential in a community where most schoolchildren attend a crazy quilt of charters and cyber schools, opened by outsiders ‒ most of which perform worse than DPS itself.
The political interests, allies and money of now U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos simply could not allow any constraints on who gets to “sell” education to the children of Michigan and Detroit ‒ even if those schools fail to educate. The overriding motive of the DeVos’ and those who promote unfettered school choice is unfortunately political, not educational. By building up a parallel for-profit school market place and financially disabling the public education “establishment,” including teachers unions, they have (successfully) advantaged Republicans and made real in Lansing an anti-spending, ‘starve the beast” approach to governing.
Well, Michigan citizens have a deep and abiding commitment to and affection for our public schools. In Michigan, we were the first in the nation (Kalamazoo in 1858) to come together to tax ourselves to provide a free high school education for everyone ‒ at a time when high school was reserved for children of elites (Note that the Kalamazoo community has now done the same thing for college-going with the Kalamazoo Promise). We call our schools Community Schools because, starting in Flint, we came to view the schools as the “lighthouse,” the center of community life. We must rebuild that leadership and commitment to a free, quality public education for all children. It won’t happen through more studies, or distractions like abolishing the State Board of Education. It will happen when any candidate looking to be our next governor runs on a clear plan to fix our broken school funding model, and make our school choice and charter system work to educate kids, so they will have a clear mandate, once elected, to get the job done. Our state’s economic future is at stake.
A interview with John Austin about a new study that finds immigrants are extremely good for Michigan’s economy.
Announcing Building Michigan
Building Michigan is an independent political committee to engage each other, develop, and promote in the political context, concrete plans to transform Michigan's economy. We will also identify and help candidates and elected officials who want to make these plans real. I think we have to get people excited and out voting by offering big, inspiring, and most importantly tangible ideas about how we overcome our challenges and make Michigan an economic leader and the land of opportunity, again. Over the months ahead we will develop and share blueprints for building the “pillars” that support economic opportunity and security for all our people. How Michigan can:
Create new jobs in emerging fields, including the sustainable “green & blue” economy of the future
Provide a quality education, and put a higher education degree in the hands of everyone
Rebuild communities and make places where our kids want to stay, that are great places to live and raise a family again;
Make Michigan the most welcoming and inclusive state, a state that lifts all our people to their highest potential;
Polish up our wonderful natural assets, the water, woods and Great Lakes that are ‘Pure Michigan’—so Michigan is the place to live, work, play, and do business
Ensure basic family security and rebuild a safety net, in a time of economic dislocation and change
Your ongoing engagement and support will help us construct this vision, share it across the state, and support candidates and office holders committed to make it real. Join me today! Go to BuildingMichiganfund.com to chip in today, like Building Michigan on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter @John_C_Austin.