April 22, 2011
Let us all now learn us some history.
History is being made daily, at least in little bits and pieces that add up to larger sections of the endless puzzle. Occasionally, there is a call for more historical knowledge. Slightly more often, interesting interpretations of history are voiced.
Since history is a subject taught in schools, it is interesting what the legislature so far is attempting to enact with school funding in light of the history of the last 20 or so years.
In that regard, consider two comments. The first is some 20 years old, spoken to a reporter — yes, this reporter — by a House Republican staff member. Sadly, the reporter has forgotten who the staffer was, but his comments at the time were striking, considering the current attitude.
It was during the debates over what would become Proposal A, itself a major part of history, and the reporter was either earnestly attending to action on the floor or trying to stay awake, when he was accosted by the youngish staffer.
“Is it true the legislature cut school funding in the ’80s?” the staffer said.
Well, yes, the reporter said, but remember that it only did so after enduring several years of what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“Huh,” sniffed the staffer haughtily (no, he did really, quite haughtily in fact). “Republicans will never cut school funding.”
The second comment comes little more than a week ago from Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant), who said once the 2011-12 budget was completed he wanted to understand how funding for education was derived (that would be for K-12 schools, community colleges and higher education), because “I cannot find rhyme or reason for how it’s done now.”
He made these comments after the community colleges appropriations subcommittee he sits on had just voted to slash the community colleges budget by 15 percent.
This comes on top of appropriations bodies in both the House and Senate voting to chop K-12 schools (the Senate committee has voted to trim it by $170 a pupil, the House subcommittee by at least $285 a pupil) and on top of proposed cuts of at least $200 million to higher education.
These are actions all taken by Republicans. Remember, nearly 20 years ago the young Republican staffer confidently said Republicans would never cut school spending, but 20 years of economic changes changes as well one’s attitude.
The proposed spending cuts come as Governor Rick Snyder is preparing next week to issue his special message on education. As he has so far with everything, he has kept this document very tightly under wraps. But most people expect the message will be heavy again on making changes to personnel policies and a call to use “best practices” in order to keep control on overall costs.
Education is one more area in which people want luxury on the cheap, more for a lot less, a Harvard degree for the cost of a one-room schoolhouse.
It is also an area where there is virtually no disagreement that Michigan’s economic future is tied critically to the quality of its education. After all, the most significant change the state made to education policy in the last decade was to require a stricter curriculum through high school, and anecdotally, according to a number of both K-12 and university officials, that policy is starting to bear fruit.
In the last decade the call also went out for Michigan to double the number of college graduates. While there is an honest disagreement over whether all students need college degrees, there has been no disagreement that virtually everyone who wants a good, sustainable career will need skills beyond high school. Hence, the remarkable growth in community college enrollment.
Which makes the choices the state has made in education in the past decade somewhat startling, especially when considering higher education. The Senate Fiscal Agency presented a document a week ago that looked at overall state spending in the last decade. Cutting to the chase, state spending barely increased over the past 10 years compared to inflation, but spending on higher education fell by nearly 35 percent during the same time (that percentage includes Mr. Snyder’s proposed cut of this year).
Spending on K-12 schools declined more slightly, 6.2 percent, and on community colleges by 7.6 percent. Again, those cuts include the potential revenue declines from Mr. Snyder’s proposed budget.
Taken altogether, one recognizes the state had to keep its budget balanced during the economically repressed years and recognizes as well that turning to the public to finance more spending, be it for schools, colleges or anything else, was both politically and economically unpalatable.
Still, given the future potential that education holds for the state, looking at the decennial spending figures and the current budgetary attitude of state policymakers, one could be forgiven for a queasy feeling.
Michigan had an education system envied by many, built at a time when the state’s driving industry offered high-paying jobs to virtually anyone regardless of their educational status. Why was that? Perhaps the answer can be found again in history, from the father of one of this reporter’s college roommates, a gnarled, muscular but weary man who was a veteran of the 1937 GM sit-down strike (another great historical moment) and who said sharply to his son as he dropped him off to college: “You ain’t never working on the line.”
But our recent education policy has been driven almost solely by the issue of balancing cost, and less on the issue of teacher training and qualification, and almost not at all on the issue of ensuring that children are ready to learn and encouraging parental involvement in education.
This all at a time when worldwide, especially in China and India, the ferocious push towards education has been worried over. One can ask if the real threat from China towards the U.S. economy is in the amount of debt China owns or in its push to create top universities.
So the questions asked should come less, perhaps, from what is immediately financially expedient and necessary, and more from what may be best in terms of our future history. We are daily making history in little pieces, and little decisions can have major consequences.
Consider this lengthy analogy: this week Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research hosted two Secret Service agents who were part of the Dallas detail for President John F. Kennedy. Gerald Blaine has co-authored a book with Lisa McCubbin called The Kennedy Detail. Clint Hill wrote the foreword. Both are now old men. Mr. Blaine, a garrulous storyteller, said he wrote the book in part because he was fed up with the nonsense from conspiracy theorists (to put it on record, Lee Harvey Oswald killed Mr. Kennedy).
Mr. Hill, more somber and reserved, will be forever remembered as the Secret Service agent who leaped aboard the presidential Lincoln as the attack occurred.
To audiences at MSU and a Lansing-area bookstore, the men plainly, directly and spell-bindingly described the assassination. Mr. Hill, assigned to protect First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and another agent were on the following car to the Lincoln.
Mr. Hill described how as the motorcade turned onto Dealy Plaza in Dallas, past the Schoolbook Depository, he heard a loud report from his rear and right. Sweeping his eyes across the scene he immediately could tell Mr. Kennedy had been shot.
Running as quickly as he could, as the Lincoln began to accelerate, he nearly reached the car as the kill shot was fired and was forever immortalized in the Zapruder film as the sickening flash of red and white as Mr. Kennedy was hit.
As Mr. Hill told it: “There was blood, brain matter and bone all over the car, all over Mrs. Kennedy,” a momentary pause, “all over me.” The shocked Mrs. Kennedy was trying to gather parts of Mr. Kennedy’s skull from the trunk of the car as Mr. Hill got on the vehicle and pushed her back to the seat.
Compelling as that story was, the lesson to heed was told by Mr. Blaine. On November 18, 1963, just four days earlier, Mr. Kennedy took part in a 28-mile long motorcade in Tampa, Florida. Secret Service agents were on the back of the Lincoln at that time, and Mr. Kennedy ordered them off. Having agents on the car made him look overprotected, the president told the agents, said Mr. Blaine, and he wanted to be accessible to the public.
Obeying that order, that decision made in a moment, meant no agents were on the back of the Lincoln as it rode through Dallas. But what if they had been, what if they had provided a shield to Mr. Kennedy, or at least would have been able to cover him after the first shot?
Mr. Blaine summed up their careers in a heartbreaking phrase: they had been a “100 percent failure.”
Those are words to haunt one from history and should put into context the potential meaning of our decisions today. In education, in public safety, in economic development, in environmental protection, what do we do now to ensure we are not 100 percent failures?