States State of the States

Schools Get Fresh Focus in Michigan

By Bess Keller — February 04, 2008 2 min read
Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm talks with her husband, Dan Mulhern, in her ceremonial office before her State of the State speech.
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Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan has taken advantage of a breather from revenue shortfalls and come on strong with proposals for education.

In her sixth State of the State address, delivered on Jan. 29, Ms. Granholm called for as many as 100 new small high schools to help stem the dropout rate, starting as early as 2009.

The Democratic governor also sounded the horn for proposals she made last year: mandatory full-day kindergarten, a law raising the mandatory school-attendance age to 18, and a program geared to helping school districts replicate Kalamazoo’s free-college-tuition plan.

Those and other proposals were swept aside in the 2007 legislative session as lawmakers battled over filling budget holes for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Without the deficits of recent years, the governor pledged no new taxes or fees. She also indicated she would ask for a boost in school aid as well as money to expand preschool programs in her Feb. 7 budget blueprint.

Reiterating her theme that investments in education are an important part of her solution to the state’s stubborn fiscal woes, Gov. Granholm said the state cannot tolerate the current dropout rate, which might be as high as one-quarter of students entering high school. Raising the required school-attendance age to 18 from 16—a move promoted by the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association—is a start but not enough, she argued.

She said large, impersonal high schools need to be replaced by ones that “use firm discipline and strong relationships” to help students achieve. The governor said she will raise the $300 million needed for the plan by borrowing against future state school aid that she anticipates will not be needed as the result of a court decision.

Political, business, and education leaders in a number of states have been pressing for smaller high schools, fueled in part by interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In New York City, a group of small high schools that opened in 2002 has seen more students graduate on time than in other schools, researchers say.

Fiscal Caution

The Michigan legislature’s top Republican leader did not take issue with Ms. Granholm’s goals but expressed doubt that the state would be able to afford the proposals this year.

“We need to be upfront that this is a year about living within our means,” said Matt Marsden, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop. “We still face fiscal challenges.”

James M. Sandy, the executive director of Business Leaders for Educational Excellence, an affiliate of the state chamber of commerce, said his group favors smaller high schools, but with the option that business or community groups could run them.

Improving schools is a better approach to the dropout problem than raising the compulsory-schooling age, he added. “The problem needs to be fixed in other ways, right down to identifying students at risk of dropping out in the 6th or 7th grade,” he said.

On the higher education front, Gov. Granholm wants to reward colleges and universities when their students complete their degrees.

Additional rewards would come from creating opportunities for low-income students and finding ways to turn research ideas into businesses.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week

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