MACKINAC ISLAND — Education reform took center stage at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, the annual gathering of the top business and government leaders in Michigan organized by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t have one student to spare,” said Paula Herbart, president of Michigan Education Association and co-chair of the “Launch Michigan” campaign, a statewide coalition of business and education leaders, philanthropy partners, and parents advocating for improved performance in the education system.
With the attention of what the Chamber called the “most influential” audience in the state, speakers explored how to improve early childhood education and public K-12 systems as well as how businesses can work with community colleges.
In her proposed state budget, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was a keynote speaker at the event, introduced a tuition-free community college plan for both graduating high school seniors and adults already in the workforce. Less than 45 percent of adults in the state currently have completed some form of postsecondary education, according to Whitmer. Her goal is to increase that number to 60 percent by 2030.
Whitmer cited the state’s percentage of adults who hold degrees as one of the reasons Amazon.com, Inc. excluded Michigan from a shortlist of 20 top locations in the company’s highly-publicized nationwide search for a second corporate headquarters site.
“This is a big problem for us as we continue to grow our economy and draw investment into Michigan,” she said. “We’ve got to have the skills to do those jobs.”
This isn’t the first time the prominent participants of the conference have spent time discussing the state’s education system, Richard Pappas, president of Davenport University, told MiBiz.
“We haven’t really had solutions,” he said. “There’s a lot more to the issues than what’s described right now. If the governor wants to get to 60 percent degrees, it can’t just be any degrees. It has to be the degrees where the jobs are.”
With continued diligence from business leaders and the state’s policymakers, Pappas is hopeful that resolutions will come eventually.
“It’s good that people are focusing in on it,” he said. “I’d rather have that than not.”
Although education systems have long been a prominent social and community issue, the topic has been increasingly top-of-mind for business leaders throughout Michigan who are struggling to meet current and future labor needs.
“From the business standpoint, it’s imperative because we have so many Baby Boomers that want to retire, and we have a very small population of kids that are in college and that are in K-12,” Mike Jandernoa, founder of 42 North Partners LLC and former CEO of Perrigo Company plc, told MiBiz.
Because there aren’t enough young people joining the workforce to replace the retiring generation, the state and its leaders have a greater responsibility to ensure every student in the system obtains a valuable and relevant education, Jandernoa said.
“We need to make sure we’re doing a much better job than we have in the past of educating these kids to fill the jobs that exist today and then the jobs of the future,” he said. “We need to make sure that the entire population knows the problem and that we’re in a crisis.”
Michigan will need 175,000 new graduates with four-year degrees and 126,000 graduates with an associate degree or career skills certificate to meet the demand for a skilled workforce, according to an analysis from The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.
However, overall post-secondary enrollments have been decreasing nationwide, declining in 2019 by about 2 percent, or nearly 300,000 students, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink spoke at the Mackinac Policy Conference about a statewide decline in graduation rates, a lack of available training for skilled trades, and decreased rankings in math, reading, and science. He was joined by Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. During his tenure as governor, Bush was an advocate for school choice, including school vouchers and charter schools.
“I’m a firm believer that business plays a part in education,” Pink told MiBiz after leaving the main stage. “To me, that is what’s so good about it being (a focus) here. It’s cool to see, from a policy perspective and from a business perspective, this focus that says we have to do better as a state in this education space.”
Following the week’s discussions and presentations, Michigan’s elected officials, including Gov. Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and House Minority Leader Christine Greig, released a joint statement about the Launch Michigan collaboration.
“We know this work isn’t simple or quick,” they said in the statement. “We appreciate the inclusive and diligent process Launch Michigan has followed to collectively work on improving our public education system. We applaud this collective effort to make Michigan a top state for education and ensure Michigan students are prepared for a bright future in a strong economy.”
The bipartisan group called for policy recommendations from the collaboration to be submitted to the legislature by Dec. 1 “in order to continue making progress for all students and our entire state.”