BY PHIL POWER, Columnist
---- — News flash: Michigan residents want better schools, expanded early childhood programs, more support and more accountability for teachers. And they're willing to pay more to get them.
These are among the findings from the largest effort ever made to gather and analyze public attitudes on K-12 schools in Michigan. More than 7,000 people participated in more than 250 small-group "community conversations" held all over the state, plus two statewide polls conducted by the non-partisan think-and-do tank, The Center for Michigan, which I founded seven years ago.
All these results are presented in a report, "The Public's Agenda for Public Education," which was to be released Tuesday at a Lansing press conference. In examining how best to improve student learning in our schools, The Center paid special attention to students, their families and employers — the customers of the education industry, whose views are too seldom considered in arguments about reform.
The report finds Michiganders view our schools in general as mediocre; nearly three in four gave our public education system a grade of "C" or worse. African-Americans and low-income families — those most in need of good schooling to succeed — are the most critical of the system, which costs Michigan taxpayers around $13 billion each year, state government's largest single expense.
What I found fascinating was that two reforms getting a tremendous amount of discussion in Lansing — increasing school choice and online learning — have the least public support among eight possible initiatives considered in the report.
The demography — age, gender, race, geography — of participants in the community conversations very closely matched the diversity of Michigan's population. Conversations took place during much of 2012, and the data was forwarded for analysis to Public Sector Consultants, a non-partisan firm in Lansing.
I hope there will be a fair amount of attention paid to this report, in part because it represents the largest, most nuanced attempt to probe citizen attitudes toward our schools.
And this report should not be considered as just another poll, but rather an opportunity for Michigan citizens to discuss at length in community conversations their feelings about their schools; it is a method that might be called "deliberative democracy."
But the report itself and the small-group meetings that produced it are only the most obvious aspects of work carried out by The Center for Michigan, which I founded to try to make Michigan a better place by improving the workings of our democratic system.
Anybody looking at the persistent gridlock in Washington and at the often high-pitched partisanship in Lansing knows that our political system isn't working very well today.
What's more, as a practical matter, citizens don't have much chance to gain a foothold in the political discourse of our state, much less our nation — unless they are multi-millionaires, presidents of unions or heads of large special interest groups.
Why? In large part, this stems from the fact that the political parties and the special interests that fund them (and increasingly control them) are often locked in a tight embrace in which political power is closely mixed with special pleadings, aided by big money.
Mostly left out of this mix are ordinary citizens.
The Center seeks to change that, partly by holding statewide community conversations as ways for ordinary Michiganders to consider important policy matters and to reach their own conclusions.
Together with fact-based reporting in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of The Center, we use these conversations as a way to seek out citizen opinions, amplify and bring them into the halls of power as legitimate expressions of popular will.
The idea is to bring the consensus views of ordinary citizens directly into the heart of policy making by our political leaders. That is, we believe, what democracy is supposed to be all about.
We believe this can provide important context and nuance to policy debates in Lansing. And we hope they represent a way to make Michigan a better place to improve the workings of our political system by making it more responsive to the views of regular citizens.
"The Public's Agenda for Public Education" is available on-line at http://bridgemi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Education_Report_FINAL.pdf.
I hope it represents a step forward in improving our schools for all our children "¦ and improving the workings of our democratic system.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.