Mackinac Island Policy Conference fosters collaborative discussion on education

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 28, 2015

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — The luxury of the Grand Hotel, carriage rides to the stables for dinner, lunch with live music, yoga on the longest porch in the world and cocktail hours created a facade for the work done at the 35th annual Michigan Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

In his opening remarks Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) enthusiastically announced unemployment rates in Michigan have recently met the national average for the first time in 15 years. Seeing this and other feats over the previous year as evidence that Michigan is the “comeback state,” Snyder urged policy makers to take advantage of this time for collaboration.

“This is an important event and it’s a real chance to have one-stop shopping for real discussion on not just Detroit or metro Detroit, but our entire state, and that’s an opportunity we don’t have often,” Snyder said. “So as we spend these next two or three days, please use time wisely. This isn’t just a chance to talk about what’s going on with the family, but it’s a chance to talk about the real issues in front of us.”

Snyder recommended attendees to speak to one another with the respect and consideration they would with their families at the kitchen table in an effort to mitigate any heated debates.

“We know we’re a great state and can only get better if we have these wonderful opportunities of revitalization,” Snyder said. “Yet, we still have difficult issues to address, we do: transportation, schools. Let’s use the kitchen table test to show cohesion on how we can do great things together.”

More than 1,600 individuals attended, including politicians, leaders, entrepreneurs and students, convening to chart the future of the state policy. This year, conference organizers from the Detroit Regional Chamber made an effort to include more young people than in previous years.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) said she was looking forward to members of Congress collaborating with one another and finding common ground on important issues.

“It’s always great when you bring everyone together to talk about issues we all care about and look for common ground,” Dingell said. “I’ve been coming to this for years, and it is a time to connect with people and talk about things you care about.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D–Mich.), like Dingell, said he was ready to embrace the opportunity to discuss issues with other representatives.

“It’s great,” Peters said. “The whole thing about the conference is that it just brings people from throughout the whole state of Michigan. People have the opportunity to come together, share ideas, and it’s very productive. The fact that you get to talk to a lot of people in a short period of time that normally I would have had to phone them, and they would phone me, and we would play phone tag back and forth and it would take a long time to actually talk to the folks here. That kind of collaboration occurs here, which is helpful.”

The theme of the four-day conference was talent, urban revitalization and cohesion, with keynote speakers addressing all aspects. Although the convention covered the entire state of Michigan, many presentations focused on the status of Detroit after the city filed bankruptcy in July 2013.

Two presentations Wednesday highlighted the healing of the Detroit economy. John Hope Bryan, founder and CEO of Operation HOPE, Inc., and founder of Bryant Group Ventures, spoke about using collaboration within the region to promote businesses and improve the economy of Detroit.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) followed Bryan’s speech with an address about the plan currently in place to continue boosting Detroit’s economy after the bankruptcy and “grand bargain.” He said he hopes to improve city services so the current economy boost will sustain itself for the long term.

Detroit’s school system and the future of education in the state of Michigan was another prominent focus during the conference.

In “The Choice is Ours: Road to Fixing Michigan’s Struggling Schools Begins in Detroit,” representatives from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren outlined the severity of Detroit Public Schools’ failure and highlighted points of their improvement report. The panel, moderated by Mary Kramer, vice president of Crain Communications, consisted of Tonya Allen, president and CEO of Skillman Foundation; John Rakolta, Walbridge CEO; and Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of Detroit Regional Chamber.

Of the 280 schools within the Detroit district, five schools exceed the state average in reading and seven exceed in math. Six to 10 percent of the school districts are proficient in reading and math. Last year, the Report Card on American Education ranked the state 40th nationally, and between 2003 and 2015, the school district student enrollment shrank from 180,000 to 45,000.

DPS is also heavily in debt and, unlike the city of Detroit, because the schools are government subsidized, they cannot declare bankruptcy, according to John Rakolta.

“The Detroit Public School system is bankrupt, totally bankrupt,” Rakolta said. “We have run up a deficit in 15 years of $850 billion, and the way they’re paying for it today is they’re taking $53 million a year out of the kids’ education.”

Allen said after Snyder helped devise the grand bargain to alleviate the Detroit bankruptcy, his next goal was to fix the Detroit Public School system with the same fervor. However, Allen was concerned with what the outcome would be, and convinced the governor to give her 100 days to create a task force to make a report on what they believed should be done to fix Detroit schools.

Allen said, like Snyder, she had the bankruptcy in the back of her mind when forming the task force.

“I often think about the bankruptcy as a shared memory for our community that we can do something really tough and succeed,” Allen said. “This is the time for us to fix that shared memory and move to other tough issues, and the toughest issue right now is education.”

Baruah said he was impressed by both Allen’s gusto of convincing the governor to give her time.

“It was Tanya and her team at Stillman that brought the team together,” Baruah said. “It was just one of the most amazing acts of leadership I’ve seen.”

Baruah also said he was impressed by the outcome of the coalition, considering the members’ differing backgrounds.

“There was something in the report for everyone to like; there’s also something in the report for everyone to dislike,” Baruah said. “Everyone walked in with their own personal political biases, experienced biases, opinions of DPS, opinions of charter schools — you name it. It was amazing how collaborative these sessions were … The diversity of opinion of people who I thought I wouldn’t ever find any common ground with on anything, I actually ended up developing a great deal of respect for.”

While not everyone agreed on every aspect of the plan, many were pleased with the creation of a Detroit Education Commissioner. Appointed by the mayor, the commissioner would oversee the operation of schools.

Snyder said he would like to have some input into who the commissioner would be, but the coalition disagreed, feeling that Detroit should have the sole say.

“The coalition has recommended that that entity be appointed by the mayor,” Allen said. “The governor has indicated that he wants some role — not just role, a controlling interest in that entity — and I think it’s important, not because I think governments should trump academics, but at some point Detroit has to stop wearing a scarlet letter. We wear the scarlet letter because we’re held accountable for what’s happened to schools yet we don’t have control.”

The group also agreed that creating a better standard curriculum for teachers to follow, increasing student and parent accountability and decreasing crime in schools were vital steps in facilitating improvement.

The urban revitalization theme of the conference prompted a lot of discussion about K-12 education Wednesday, but higher education was a prominent topic as well. In step with policies Snyder has emphasized throughout his terms, discussion focused on increasing skilled trade opportunities as well as encouraging policy makers to inspire talent — another theme — in the state.

“The number one priority we should have in the state of Michigan is to develop the talented people of the state, to make sure they have the opportunities and skills they need to be successful,” Snyder said in the opening remarks. “That gives us a great economic opportunity. We can literally put to work tens of thousands of great hardworking people in well-paying jobs … Income inequality is a serious issue. The best way to solve that problem is by developing talent.”

Mike Rowe, former host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” host of CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” and founder of the mikeroweWORKS foundation, was also present at the conference. He gave a keynote address discussing his time on “Dirty Jobs,” the conception of the show and the personal significance of skilled trades have for him.

Rowe came from a family of tradesmen, and said, growing up, never perceived skilled trade jobs to have the low stigma they sometimes have in today’s culture. He said he greatly admires his grandfather, who worked in several skilled trades sectors. After being confronted with the disparity between the high unemployment rates and constant need for employees in skilled trades sectors he featured on “Dirty Jobs,” Rowe began a foundation.

The skilled trades jobs featured on “Dirty Jobs” may have appeared to be uncomfortable to most viewers, but those in the sector often made a comfortable living. Rowe said while he never wanted his show to lead with money, he admitted of the nearly 300 jobs they aired, 40 were multimillionaires.

Throughout his talk, he referred to the terms “peripeteia” — Greek for a turning point — and “anagnorisis” — Greek for a critical discovery — which he retained from a community college course he took on ancient Greek literature.

Rowe said during his run on “Dirty Jobs,” he found himself frequently having anagnorisises and peripeteias, but it was not until he created his foundation that he remembered his first peripeteia.

It happened his senior year of high school when his guidance counselor encouraged him to apply to a four-year university. Rowe was unsure of what career path he would like to choose and was not willing to take on significant debt. His counselor pointed to a poster featuring a jubilant matriculate on the left side juxtaposed with a sad tradesman and asked him which one he would like to aspire to be.

“I’ll never forget that,” Rowe said. “Because that’s my granddad on the right. I never remembered him as sad or portrayed that way. I never remembered him as anything other than inspirational, magical. Really, the guy was a magician, he could do anything. The skilled trade was the thing upon which my family, my community — that was the alter where we worshipped.”

Because of the impact the poster had on him as a teenager, Rowe created his own reversed version of the poster, and believes a public relations campaign is the ticket to changing the stigma surrounding skilled trades. Rowe referenced the 1953 “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, which still exists today and, over a decade, helped Americans have an anagnorisis and peripeteia about litter. He said a campaign about skilled trades could have a similar effect on the country.

“We have to do something to make people look at work in the same way they stopped looking at and began thinking differently about littering,” Rowe said. “We have to stop demonizing a whole category of great jobs. It’s dumb. If we don’t, I’m no expert — I don’t research skills gap, but I get why it is — we’re not going to have the talent we need, we’re not going to have the revitalization, and we’re not going to be cohesive.”

Later in “Closing the Skills Gap: Building a World-Class Talent Pipeline” a panel moderated by Chris Holman, founder and CEO of Michigan Business Network, and consisting of Stephanie Comai, director of the State of Michigan’s Talent Investment Agency; David Dauch, chairman, president and CEO of American Axle Manufacturing; Bill Pink, vice president and Dean of Workforce Development at Grand Rapids Community College; and John Russell, president and CEO of CMS Energy and Consumers Energy, discussed other possible ways of implementing Snyder’s skilled trades vision. The discussion surrounded the implementation of a STEM-focused curriculum so students leaving high school already have the technical skills the workforce demands of them.

Dean Karmen, founder of DEKA and creator of the Segway, gave a keynote address, which also regarded the importance of high schoolers having access to technological education. Karmen created For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, in which high schoolers compete against other teams to build a robot that accomplishes specific tasks.

Demonstrating the gravity of technical education, this year’s high school state champion robotics team brought their creation to the Grand Hotel and awed policy makers as they showed it lifting and stacking crates.