Are Officials Missing Something Or Avoiding It

June 5, 2002
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In testimony before the Michigan Senate Education Committee, the superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, Michael Shibler, recently argued for the creation of a so-called education renaissance zone program.

He seemed to be thinking of something analogous to Grand Rapids’ renaissance zones through which businesses have restored to productive use many decrepit central city buildings. The positive impact of renaissance zones has been remarkable.

But the parallels aren’t at all clear between salvaging a blighted inner city and salvaging school systems that fail to train children adequately.

In terms of real estate, a renaissance zone merely is a district where government has relaxed certain rules. Seeing the central city crumbling around their ears and generating zero taxes, some cities had the sense to offer developers a deal: redevelop these old factories for use as offices and apartments and we’ll hold taxes for a while.

But that sort of thing can’t bring about a school system’s rebirth. For one thing, decrepit buildings aren't the problem. The most disgraceful, leakiest school in Kent County literally is a palace compared to the very best public schools in Beijing, Moscow or even London. Yet those schools demand more of their students in science, math and literature (their literature plus ours). And it remains an open scandal that so many of our high schools graduate — yes, graduate — so many youngsters who require remedial training.

At one point, a diploma guaranteed certain levels of academic attainment. If you didn’t master the coursework, you didn’t graduate. Period. Today, a diploma attests that the student has passed through 12 grades. Proceed further at your own risk.

So what kind of renaissance program will change the unpleasant fact that far too many high school graduates speak bone-headed English and have no idea what ionization is?

Well, if the central city renaissance zones are anything to go by, then a successful education renaissance zone would relax certain rules. Not taxes, of course. In this case, taxes are irrelevant, at least in terms of paying them. So what to do?

One senator suggested that business people could “help in the classroom” by “collaborating” with teachers. Yes, and business people could “serve as role models.”

Go to the back of the class, senator.

Junior Achievement has had business people collaborating in middle and high school classes for years now. They’re role models, too; they dress real neat. But those programs have not occasioned a rebirth of academics. Moreover, business people cannot bring about that rebirth … not in that secondary and subordinate way.

Business inventiveness, creativity and drive has made its way into some educational venues. But not into public education, which keeps those priceless assets at a very long, stiff arm’s length.

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