Michigan Guts Its Schools


August 25, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The state of Michigan has come to epitomize all the sicknesses of public education in America. Now it seems poised, like a baby bird, to swallow all the nostrums on the conservative Republican agenda.

Under the leadership of Gov. John Engler, Michigan has passed a law abandoning property taxes as a way to finance public schools in 1994, taking away $6.3 billion, or two-thirds of the money used to educate the state's public-school children.

Liberals as well as conservatives might applaud temporarily, knowing that property taxes always have been a terribly unfair way to finance public schools. Districts with wealthy tax bases have spent $10,000 per pupil, whereas those with little property to tax were spending $2,500 per pupil. Judges have ordered ''equalization'' and many legislatures have responded, but it remains a curse for a schoolchild to live in an impoverished district.

But the applause ends for many when they ask how Michigan will replace the $6.3 billion. Through a huge and regressive state sales tax? By setting up casinos on Saginaw Bay and boat gambling on every river? Hiring hit men to raid Fort Knox?

While politicians fight in Lansing over how to raise new revenues, Bay City may soon have to close schools attended by 11,500 youngsters, and two dozen or more other Michigan cities may have to lock schoolhouse doors.

As irresponsible as it seems to cancel property taxes without approving another means of financing, the most revolutionary aspects of the new Michigan approach are worse. They threaten to wipe out public elementary and secondary education as we've known it throughout American history. Any funds raised under new laws Governor Engler would have dispensed so that the public schools will no longer have what he calls ''a monopoly of mediocrity.''

This idea, long pushed by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, is increasingly popular because in the current dog-eat-dog atmosphere in ''hard-times'' Michigan, many thousands of people don't want to pay for public schools where none of their children are in attendance. And even people with kids in public schools are inclined to believe every story they hear about waste, big perks for principals, the laziness and incompetence of teachers and the ''destructive'' impact of the teachers unions.

Many parents leap at official talk of ''choice'' by politicians who lead them to believe that under the new Michigan scheme a child from the poorest Detroit ghetto will just ask to attend the ritziest public school in the suburb Birmingham and be given a bus to ride there.

The ''vouchers'' that Governor Engler talks of are viewed as manna by poor whites as well as blacks who are not sophisticated enough to foresee that only a token number of deprived kids will be able to use the voucher as a passport to a good private school. Most can't see that the great majority of deprived children will be left in worse public schools than ever because the ''privatization'' and ''voucher'' schemes will have robbed the public school system of its best teachers and brightest students, and of precious funds.

The conservatives' school-reform agenda, now embraced by Michigan, glorifies the notion of ''parental choice,'' but it never deals with the reality that millions of Michigan children have just one parent around, and that single parent may not be qualified to make the educational decisions that will affect their child forever.

Some public-school supporters in Michigan say Governor Engler is bringing on ''devastation;'' others say he is forcing the development of competition with, or even the replacement of, a decaying public school system.

I join those who brace for devastation of America's commitment to public education. I expect the learning gap between the poor and the privileged to widen in Michigan. But I watch knowing that if the proof is in the pudding, Michigan will give us a first taste of either educational ambrosia or social strychnine.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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