Those of you in Michigan know what a dynamic figure we have in Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Democratic leader of our ultra-Republican upper house. (She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful. She recently opted not to run for Carl Levin’s Senate seat because she wants to have time to be a good mom to her two daughters.) One of Whitmer’s signature policy initiatives is the Michigan 2020 plan, a proposal to give all high-school graduates in the state a college scholarship. The plan, inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise, has virtually no chance of becoming law in Michigan, but it has been a valuable avenue for talking about the need to invest in education while our Republican legislature continues to cut K-12 funding and support for universities.
Normally, I love the opportunity to speak out on behalf of Senate Dems and the Kalamazoo Promise, but recently I found myself in the odd and somewhat uncomfortable position of saying no to one of Gretchen Whitmer’s aides who asked if I was interested in writing an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. The goal would be to rebut some of the criticisms of Michigan 2020 offered by MSU School of Education Dean Don Heller in his own op-ed.
In truth, I do disagree with several of Dean Heller’s points, including his argument that financial aid for middle- and upper-middle-class students is somehow wasted because they can already afford to go to college. Such families are seriously stressed by rising tuition costs, and students often graduate with unsustainable debt loads that constrain their future choices. In Kalamazoo, the Promise has enabled students at all income levels to graduate virtually debt-free, opening up all kinds of possibilities for graduate study and jobs that pay a high social rather than monetary wage. No, my concerns about the Michigan 2020 plan lie elsewhere.
To me, the special brilliance of the Kalamazoo Promise donors is that they invented a scholarship program that serves as an economic development tool for the region. It requires not just money, but also strong community buy-in and the powerful alignment of multiple players. The place-based structure of Promise programs promotes this kind of alignment, which in turn helps improve the viability of urban school districts and core cities. A statewide program, in my opinion, would dilute this economic development impact and the value of Promise programs in strengthening high-poverty school districts that serve urban areas.
That being said, my heart is with Senator Whitmer and the Dems as they seek to leverage more funding for education. If they are successful, I would like to see this funding used for 1) high-quality pre-K for everyone; 2) higher per-pupil spending on K-12 students to reverse the draconian, Republican-enacted declines in the state’s foundation grant over the past few years; 3) more funding for higher ed, including a state-level needs-based scholarship, the reinstatement of a Michigan Promise-type merit program, and/or full funding for community college tuition for all; and 4) funding to support locally based and owned Promise programs.
Call me, Senator Whitmer, when you’d like me to put this in an op-ed!
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