TIM SKUBICK COLUMN: Is race beneath the school debate?

Tim Skubick

Gov. Snyder’s plan to let students attend any school in the state opens an old can of worms

This could get ugly.

The governor is asking state lawmakers to open up a can of worms that may bring back bad memories from the 1970s, when the “race” issue produced a tinder box of emotions and fears in every corner of this state.

Now to be sure, the governor’s idea to open every Michigan school to children from all around the state does not reach the same fever pitch of the cross-district busing controversy. But some of the same elements could be in play.

Just ask the folks in the Grosse Pointes who have shelled out $8,000 a year to verify enrollment eligibility of all their students in order to keep interlopers from getting in.

The Snyder administration wants to extend a decent education to every student in this state and, like other GOP governors before him, Mr. Snyder is drinking the schools-of-choice Kool-Aid. That movement is driven by the notion that if more competition can be driven into the school system, somehow kids will get smarter.

That business model may work in the private sector, where goods and services are produced, but some educators point out that schooling little Johnnie and Janie is not the same as grinding out widgets.

Yet the business-guy-turned-governor is on this mission — and running smack dab into the education lobby, which wants no part of it.

“It’s a horrible idea,” laments the lobbyist for school administrators.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” the lobbyist for school boards chimes in.

Here’s the rub. If you make this legal, a student from any urban area could end up in some richer school district. You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth-grader to figure out how some folks might respond to that.

To be fair, not everyone who opposes this has a race problem. But in some instances it can be the subtext of this debate.

Part of the back and forth will center on the local control issue, whereby local schools get to decide their own admission policies without any mandate from this administration.

The GOP chair of the education budget in the House expresses his concerns over state mandate vs. local control.

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” Rep. Bill Rogers says, as he admits the governor will have to convince him to vote yes. “I prefer to stick with local control.”

Ditto for Canton GOP Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who favors local authority over a state mandate.

Yet other Republicans are on board. Rep. Bob Genetski from West Michigan is about as conservative as it gets, and he believes “just because a student grows up in a certain district, that doesn’t mean that’s the right place for that kid to get the best education.”

And Jackson Republican Rep. Earl Poleski contends that “parental control” trumps the right of local schools to make that decision.

You will hear that allowing out-of-district students to relocate will bring down test scores at a time when schools are challenged to bring them up.

You will hear that it’s tough for a new student to move into a district and get acclimated alongside someone who has lived there all his or her life.

The Snyder administration is aware of the racial overtones of all this, yet the governor has made it clear it’s the right thing to do. But the bad news for him is, not everyone agrees.

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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Posted by Tim Skubick

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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