Michigan’s Defining Moment: Dark Clouds, Silver Linings

Are only storm clouds on the horizon for Michigan? According to two experts, maybe so. But taking a hard look at the facts and figures is the only way we can brighten up the horizon.         

On May 27, 2010, Leaders Without Borders sponsored a breakfast meeting to discuss the report “Michigan’s Defining Moment—Making it Happen.”  The Center for Michigan, a nonpartisan “think and do” tank, issued the report that was based upon the input of more than 10,000 ordinary citizens. Together they created an agenda for Michigan’s future.         

The report includes a 2010 Michigan Scorecard created in partnership with Data Driven Detroit. The Scorecard measures Michigan’s performance in the areas citizens found most crucial to the state’s success, including education, tax policy and economic development. Sunny icons represent the state’s “good” standing in comparison to other states and regions. Partly cloudy icons represent “average” performance, and “stormy” icons represent comparatively poor performance.         

At the breakfast, D3’s Kurt Metzger described some of the data behind the storm clouds that have gathered over Michigan. In 2008, 14.4 percent of Michigan residents were in poverty.         

 “No neighboring Great Lakes State has more people in poverty,” Metzger said.         

Education: flunking the test         

The state also received a stormy rating in employment. Michigan has been repeatedly at the bottom among states, leading the nation in unemployment for four straight years.         

Education isn’t much brighter, said Metzger. Although recent MEAP scores indicate improvements in reading and math skills, Michigan students are tanking on the National Assessment of Educational Program (NAEP). For example, in 2009 more than 84 percent of Michigan fourth graders scored “proficient” or better on the MEAP, but only 30 percent scored “proficient” or better on the NAEP.          

The same year, 70.3 percent of Michigan eighth graders scored well on the Michigan math test, while only a third of them passed the NAEP. The gap of proficiency between the state and national tests makes you wonder if we are just dumbing down the tests to make ourselves feel good, Metzger said.         

Poor test performance may be linked to the lack of funding devoted to education in Michigan, said Metzger. Although Michigan educators are well-paid, the data shows the state is slipping in money spent per-pupil. Metzger suggested we start rethinking the big paychecks for superintendents and give the money to the kids.         

Stemming the brain drain         

Education isn’t the only place where dark clouds loom over Michigan. The state is also ranked last in population growth in this decade.         

“Migration led to growth in every state, but Michigan,” said Metzger. “We have to find a way to bring young people back to Michigan.”    

Undaunted by the dark clouds, the Center for Michigan’s Phil Power insisted that it is only by taking an accurate assessment of where we are that the state can begin to address its critical needs. Like a coach before the big game, he motivated the leaders present to form nonpartisan coalitions to help build Michigan’s future. The Center’s report, “Michigan’s Defining Moment—Making it Happen,” gives ten steps to transforming Michigan. The primary target areas are: Economic Growth & Quality Of Life; A Talented, Globally Competitive Workforce; and an Effective, Efficient & Accountable Government.         

 “It has to be a collective act from all of us in order to save our state,” Power said.         

Angela Wynn, Senior Community Liaison for Blue Cross Blue Shield, was compelled by the focus on bi-partisan education reform. “I’m an advocate for education,” she said, “so anything about education grabbed my interest.”         

Joan Morehead, a community leader who develops workshops for the unemployed, was amazed at how the priorities for the state remained consistent across different demographic groups. “Our needs are more similar than dissimilar,” she said.         

Power stressed the importance of having a shared vision, and putting our differences aside to achieve a mutual goal.         

“We are at the hinge of our history,” he said. “We cannot let things go on the way they are.”