Education Commitment Needed at All Levels
by Doug Luciani
Consensus is a simple concept but a difficult one to achieve. One topic most agree on, however, is the importance of a good education for our learners of all ages to keep our region, state and country competitive – even relevant – in a rapidly evolving economy.
Consensus, which means general agreement, breaks down quickly regarding the best way to improve education. Some of Michigan’s best-known think tanks, including the Center for Michigan and Business Leaders for Michigan, are chronicling an increasing frustration with the state’s performance in various education metrics.
This includes Michigan’s middle-of-the-pack rankings in areas including overall education attainment, the percentage of the state’s workforce with technical training, and the readiness of high school graduates for college or careers. Other data suggest the state isn’t investing enough in education. It gets even worse with the numbers surrounding the development of our youngest learners with respect to their brain development and kindergarten readiness.
Most of what we read and hear reflects challenges in state policy and priorities, with a lesser federal role. As daunting as the overall task at those levels may seem, the good news is that we have many regional strengths and assets on which to build. We are not necessarily captives to a massive failure of vision and leadership among our elected and appointed state officials that goes back decades.
Our largest local school district, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), recently reported its best financial condition in more than a decade for its operating budget. A sound balance sheet moves the district away from fiscal crisis management and allows leaders to focus on longer-range curriculum and achievement goals. Our top students are heading to higher education carrying extensive college credits, resulting in significant savings for themselves and their families. They’re able to thrive at the top universities in the country and engage in cutting-edge careers across the world.
Our region’s education system is also strengthened by top-flight private schools. Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS) in 2017 was included among “American’s Most Challenging Schools” by the Washington Post – the second-ranked school in Michigan among private and parochial schools. It’s also ranked among the country’s top schools in secular and Catholic education. GTACS continues to invest in new facilities to help maintain its high educational standards.
The challenge for us “locals” is to build on the success and momentum of these regional achievements while demanding that higher policy makers focus on structural change. It’s important that the community hold up its end of the bargain by maintaining and improving our education facilities, equip them with the technology of today and tomorrow (capital, not operating expenses, which are funded locally through millages), and hire and develop the best and brightest educators to guide our young people (operating, not capital expenses, which are funded through the state’s school funding formula). It’s critical to stay focused on what the community can do to keep our public and private education facilities well positioned for the future. Even the best-laid plans for education reform and improvement won’t be fully achieved without local support.
When she has a strongly held conviction, Traverse City Area Chamber’s 2017 Board Chair Bonnie Alfonso often says, “This I know to be true.” And I know this to be true: Our region’s future is intrinsically linked with the success of its local education system. We can’t fill our talent gap, serve our graying population, or attract new employers with a stagnant and aging education infrastructure. It’s time to step up and do the job – while holding those higher up the education chain accountable for doing their jobs as well.
We applaud GTACS for its new construction and ongoing rehabilitation of facilities. We are excited and appreciative of Northwestern Michigan College’s recently built and improved facilities and its pipeline of projects. And we not only applaud TCAPS for what it has done to improve facilities with the money it had, but also challenge it to bring a new, visionary capital plan to the voters in 2018 to accelerate, not just “stay in the race” with other public districts in Michigan and elsewhere.
Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North Funding and Development. Contact him at doug@traverseCONNECT.org.