The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Education it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 1414 Wells St. Mon, 24 Feb 2014 21:21:52 +0000 Trevor Staples Second grader scientists report giant puddle is nearly knee deep. [photo]

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In It For The Money: Classroom Sales Sun, 12 Aug 2012 23:54:44 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Sometimes it’s earlier, like this month. Columns for the two previous months were “In it for the Money: E Pluribus Progress” and “In it for the Money: Getting Schooled.”

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I spent the last two columns talking about what we should be teaching in our schools [1]. As we teeter on the brink of another school year, I want to take a second to talk about how to best teach these things. And, fair warning, my suggestion – as a former teacher and school administrator, not just a current chattering gadfly – is one you’ve already heard a thousand times: small class sizes.

But in the next twelve minutes I’m going to give you a way to argue for small class sizes in a patois that business folks can get behind.

As I’ve mentioned before, the vogue among conservative politicians – both at the state and national level – is to argue that their business acumen makes them uniquely well-suited to govern in our economically troubled times. I don’t reject this claim out of hand, because I agree that there are many business practices that adapt well to the public sector.

The problem, to my eye, is that the practices these erstwhile businessmen want to import to the public sector are largely from the management offices, rather than the sales floor.

Why Management Thinking Doesn’t Work in the Public Sector

As Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman outlined brilliantly in a lil blog post at the beginning of this year, many of the techniques fundamental to making a business profitable make no sense when dealing in the public sector. Krugman’s post is short (certainly by Ann Arbor Chronicle standards; a pitiful 238 words!), but worth your read.

He highlights a tried-and-true technique for pumping up a flagging business: Concentrate profits while offloading costs. For example, fire half the workers at your candy factory, speed up the line, and keep pumping out roughly the same number of boxes (albeit at lower quality). As far as your balance sheet is concerned, profits have remained stable while costs have decreased; that’s good management! Of course, the workers bear the stress of the layoffs and the consumers bear the crappier quality, but those are “externalities”; they accrue off your books, and are “somebody else’s problem.” [2]

But governments – even at the local level – can’t really work this way, because all of a government’s customers are intimately entangled in its business. After all, a government’s customers make up the vast majority of its workers, as well as its bosses. If most of your customers are workers in your factory, then they know how badly quality has sunk, and they’re gonna want to stop buying. Meanwhile, if your bosses are stuck buying your crappy product and know it, they’re gonna fire your ass. Oops.

Boardrooms, Sales Floors, and Classrooms

That said, there are plenty of business lessons that are a perfect fit for our schools. What disappoints me is that when these CEO-politicians bring their “hard-won business smarts” to the schools, they bring everything but the things that actually made them successful businesspeople. They trot out “metrics” and “dashboards” and “maximized throughput” and “economies of scale” and “incentives” and “efficiency” – all the 50-cent biz-school jargon – without bringing the one piece of wisdom that every businessperson I’ve ever met knows in his or her heart:

Business is about relationships

Let’s talk about sales. I used to sell hiking boots. That was the last time anyone called me a “salesman” – but I’ve sold myself at every meeting, during every interview, with every handshake. I’m selling to you right now.

“Sales” is the word we use to dismiss “rhetoric” as beneath us, but rhetoric is the thing we – the magical talking chimps – use to Get Things Done.

Rhetoric – the brilliant, single-word slogan “Change” – got our first African-American president elected. We were sold on this man, and frankly, we’ve done okay [3]. Kennedy’s salesmanship put men on the moon. Jimmy Carter’s salesmanship has nearly eliminated the god-awful guinea worm. Sales built our railroads, sales bring down rates of teen pregnancy, sales of the M.A.D.D. and variety cratered dangerous teen drinking and smoking [4].

Sales hinge on relationships: We trust the salesperson, we believe he or she shares our interests and goals and dreams, and so we buy.

Always Be Closing

The most basic sell is “hand selling.” The salesperson and customer interact one-on-one, and the salesperson makes recommendations that are responsive to the customer’s needs. Any solvent shoe store owner can train just about any human of average social intelligence to hand sell. Think about asking someone on a date; that’s the hand sell at its foundation: “How are you doing today? Can I interest you in a handy me to have around your life?”

A step up is pitching to a group of, let’s say, a dozen or twenty folks. Not everyone is great at this, but almost everyone can learn to do it well enough. This is making a pitch to investors, arguing before a jury, playing an open mic night, giving a class presentation, reporting to a team of colleagues or board of directors.

The trick is that relationships really need to be formed person-by-person; this happens naturally when you’re speaking one-on-one, but is much more challenging when you’re talking one-to-many. That’s why we have all those chestnuts of public speaking: Make eye-contact with individuals, work the room, refer to audience members by name, touch people’s shoulders and elbows, etc. It’s tricky, but given thirty minutes, you can form a personal connection with twenty people as you make your pitch. It’s a learned skill, not a natural-born talent.

But once you cross that magical line from “small group” to “crowd,” there’s a major psychological shift. A “crowd,” after all, is just a single thrown beer bottle away from being a “mob.”

Not a lot of folks can wow a crowd. Realistically speaking, once you’ve got more than a small group – once you’re in the size of those big real estate and investment seminars – you can’t really sell anything, because you can’t form those personal relationships. The folks in those audiences aren’t being convinced to buy, they’re just being tipped over the edge, because they’d already sold themselves on the idea before they showed up.

You might notice these numbers I’ve picked out, and the sharp tacks already see where I’m going: Tutors and music teachers and coaches “hand sell.”

Teachers in normal schools basically need to be able to pitch a boardroom – traditionally, that is, when classes sizes were capped under two dozen.

Anything above that – like stadium-seating college lectures – requires either a pro-grade snake-oil salesman or substantial buy-in from the crowd before they even come through the door.

Kids in compulsory public schools often aren’t willing buyers; they need to be sold. And even Lee Iacocca couldn’t sell 40 reluctant buyers in a single group. That takes goddamn sales magic, and the only cats with that kind of voodoo are politicians and snake-oil gurus. And there isn’t a single such talent in this great nation who’s ever going to settle for $42,000 per year plus medical and a pension – not when his or her earning potential starts in the low six figures and only goes up, up, up.

The Problem With Our Schools

The problem with education in America – to the degree that there is a problem [5] – is that we’re putting fair-to-middlin’ sales staff into a nearly impossible sales situation. No shoe store owner in the world expects his or her staff to sell shoes forty pairs at a time; if there’s that many folks coming through the door, then they hire more sales staff. They don’t expect shoe buyers to sit in rows six deep and stare at the ceiling while someone yammers to them indiscriminately about chunky heels or high-performance cross-trainers, without regard for what kind of feet they have and what kinda walking they need to do.

My son’s kindergarten class had 23 students this year. That’s kind of a big room to work, but a competent public speaker can do it, and his teacher was just such a salesperson. Good for her. My wife’s high school classes in Redford are hovering in the mid-30s, with pressure to add more [6]. My wife is a brilliant human being with a masters in education and experience in tough schools with tough kids. She loves her subjects, expects a lot from her students, and takes no shit. But she isn’t Barack Obama or Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, for chrissakes, and none of those folks ever dedicated their lives to a five-figure career with shrinking benefits.

So, that’s my pitch to you, Governor Snyder. Do you want to reform our schools with solid business practices? Then start by putting your frontline sales staff into sales situations where they can actually close deals instead of throwing them in front of a distractible mob and then acting shocked when they don’t make their numbers.

Of course, I’m a little loathe to put this notion in your head, sir, as I’m 90 percent sure that if you do read this, your only takeaway will be “Hey! Teachers are a lot like salesmen; we should make ‘em work on commission!”


[1] TL;DR: Compassion, mutual caretakership, lateral thinking, perseverance, humility.

[2] That might sound hollow, but bear in mind that in a world where you have to please banks – which is the world of all but the smallest businesses – looking good on paper is the entire game. Real world results have little bearing on decision making when those decisions must please the dark gods of corporate personhood served by the damned, scuttling minions inhabiting the cubicles of Comerica and Bank of America.

[3] Not super-awesome, but it’s a solid performance in terms of what we were promised. For what is clearly an apples-to-something-similar-to-but-clearly-not-an-apple comparison, check out the GOP Promise Meter. Incidentally, as a One Love kinda hippie, I consider most “compromises” to be solid wins. It’s a big tent, and I just want it to get bigger and bigger and bigger until we’re all mad-crazy group-hugging in the shade and singing “Give Peace a Chance.” Amen.

[4] On the dark side, a nation of freedom-minded Christians sold themselves the transatlantic slave trade. Nazi Germany sold Europe 11 million corpses, and sold them the ovens to go with them. Our last president sold us two futile wars.

[5] Americans have this “common sense” notion that our schools are terrible. That claim . . . I don’t even know where to start with that claim. Right on the face of it, the sentence “America’s schools are terrible” simply makes no sense.

First, there are no “American schools.” We don’t have a federal school system, we don’t even really have state-by-state schools; we have a school system of individual local districts of varying size, influence, resources, standards, practices, and goals. Aggregating data about those schools, looking at the final number, and saying “Christ, our school system is a wreck!” is tantamount to aggregating climatological data from across the country, looking at the final number, and concluding that it’s impossible to grow berries in the United States because, once you factor in the dearth of precipitation in Arizona and the overabundance of overcast days in Alaska, we’re just too dark and too dry for a strawberry to take hold here.

Beyond that, our school systems seek to do something that’s not quite unique, but nonetheless rare worldwide: We want to offer everyone a diverse, holistic education at the same level in a system that doesn’t break children off into vocational tracks and doesn’t throw anyone away.

Anyway, I’m not saying we don’t have problems; I’m saying that the answer to “Why aren’t our schools like Japan’s and Singapore’s?” is “Because we aren’t Japanese and this isn’t Singapore.”

[6] FYI, the maximum class-size advised by the United Nations is 35. Class sizes of up to 40 are far from unheard of in Detroit, even at the elementary level, and word on the street is that high schools might be looking at up to 61 students per class this fall. In other words, we’re steadily sliding toward the same place that rural India and Kenya are diligently working to climb out of. Hell, even Afghanistan – which has been besought by war (civil, holy, and otherwise) since 1979 – can keep their average down to 55 students per teacher. In other words, I’m not precisely sure we should call this latest round of “reforms” in Detroit Public Schools “progress.” For a nuanced perspective on class size, especially as it pertains to the developing world, give this 2007 report from USAID a read.

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In It For The Money: E Pluribus Progress Wed, 18 Jul 2012 03:12:31 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Readers will recognize the subtle thematic connection of this month’s column to Maker Faire Detroit, which takes place July 28-29 this year. That fair is about tinkering with stuff, and Nelson’s column is also about tinkering with stuff, but more importantly, ideas.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Last month I basically argued that it’s petty – and possibly tragically stupid – to demand schools “prepare our kids to participate in the 21st Century economy,” or whatever stump-speech claptrap rhetoric the blue-suit-red-tie men are using this cycle. [1]

That said, I know I’ll never get what I want, because plenty of good hearted folks – very rationally – want our schools to focus implicitly (if not explicitly) on prepping our brood to participate efficiently in economic exchange. Money, after all, makes the world go round. [2]

Fortunately, economic competence need not exclude compassionate mutual usefulness. But moving toward either goal, let alone both, demands that we change how we’re doing things. Simply put, the public education system we have is largely designed to create employees, folks who can obediently and accurately execute on another person’s directions in an orderly fashion for a predetermined block of time.

Unfortunately, we’re sorta shy on employers, so producing more employees just gluts the market and devalues that resource. In case it isn’t suitably obvious, being trained to follow directions doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be the person determining what should be done. What we need are folks capable of making up new things to do, and content to see those best-laid plans torn asunder in the productive chaos of Getting Things Done.

Play School

We get the word “school” from the Greek “scholē” – which means “leisure.” The word was later generalized to apply to those conversations you had in your spare time, and the things you sussed out in those talks.

This is telling. Nowhere in the roots of the word “school” are there standards or goals or benchmarks. There’s meandering exploration and bickering and compromise and progress, but no curriculum (which is Latin for a race track, from “currere,” meaning “to run” – inviting one to ask “To run where? Why?”) [3]

Maria Montessori – she of the Montessori Schools spread far and wide across this land – famously said that “play is the work of the child.” [4] In the strictest evolutionary sense, play is the mechanism for preserving brain function. During the first years of life the brain massively over-wires, connecting disparate neurons willy-nilly. A toddler’s brain has almost twice as many synapses, and shows twice as much activity, as an adult’s.

As they go on living in a set environment, where certain phonemes are or are not part of the predominant language, where specific sounds map to specific dangers and rewards, where this or that color or light-density or set of scents and flavors predominate, their brains abandon the “unprofitable” (that is, seldom used) connections and reinforce those that get fired over and over and over again (a process called, appropriately enough, “pruning”).

This is why every baby on earth can “naturally” trill a Spanish-style “rr” or growl a Hebrew “ch” without effort, but every American-born high-school student from an English-speaking household struggles to learn to do the same: we pruned those synapses decades ago, long before we appreciated the vast importance of having a foreign language credit and a few AP classes on our transcripts.

The nature of our brains is to lose superfluous connections. But the problem is that such connections are only “superfluous” in one specific daily environment. If nothing else can be said for our species, we can at least agree that most modern humans live and work in environments very different from those where they potty trained. In other words, while this natural process developed to streamline brains so that we’d be best at the fixed tasks we were born to, humans have risen to world-wide prominence specifically because we’ve developed tricks to retain as much neural flexibility as possible (a quality referred to as “neuroplasticity”).

Hence the evolution of play. Unlike most other animals, we don’t just use play is a way to safely test and develop stable survival strategies for our birth environments (as is the standard issue explanation for play in the wild). We play in order to preserve neural pathways that would otherwise atrophy. Humans are one of the very few animals that play into adolescence, let alone adulthood. We work hard and we pour resources into keeping our minds as open as possible, so that we can keep living on our cunning – throughout the world and into lifeless space. My point being, the thing we think of as leisurely messing around is, in terms of survival, likely some of the most important work we do.

A Great Man Did Something

In school we’re taught – either implicitly or explicitly – the “Great Man” theory of historical progress (I’m not being casually chauvinistic when I say that, either – because it’s almost invariably men, and primarily pale-skinned ones like myself, who are the subjects in History). In case you were lucky enough to receive a very enlightened – or critically sharp – education, the Great Man theory goes something like this:

  1. There is a Problem.
  2. A Great Man identifies this Problem, and after
  3. many long nights toiling in his barn/basement/cramped office, he comes up with
  4. the Solution. He then
  5. brings his Solution to Market,
  6. where Rational Consumers appreciate the value of this Solution, and
  7. Pay Money for It.
  8. The Great Man flourishes, society blossoms, and boom! he gets his picture in history books and name on buildings.

Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison – all Great Men who marched history forward. Amen.

E Pluribus Progress

Of course, we smart kids already know that’s not how Progress works – not even according to the Great Men themselves. First off, no invention of note is really the result of a single person toiling in his lab or barn or whatever. Everyone from Ford to Jobs to Gates to Zuckerburg to Kwolek (she’s a Great Lady; discovered Kevlar) is more than happy to concede this point. Newton said it best: “If I’ve seen further than other folk, it’s ‘cause I was lucky enough to get a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants.” [5]

Beyond that, ideas don’t take traction without a large body of minds ready to pick them up and run with them. Again, Zuckerburg would not dispute this, nor would Ford:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked 50 or 10 or even 5 years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense. [6]

Even Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants, came up with his crowning achievement – Calculus (which he called “fluxions”) – simultaneously with Leibniz. Such simultaneous inventions, in fact, end up being the rule more than the exception.

Anonymous Tinkerers

But, to be fair, we need to wind back one step further, because it isn’t just untrue that creations of note and impact are the result of a lone Great Man toiling in solitude to solve a Problem, because the very first step is itself a myth: No one starts by identifying the Problem.

Ford didn’t see that common folks needed a reliable, affordable automobile and set out to create it. Ford was a farm kid with a knack for mechanical devices who, while employed as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, pursued his own crooked experiments with gasoline engines. He tinkered, and through several failed companies, he continued to tinker until he struck on the Model T, which caught on for its reliability and low cost – attributes arrived at because he’d been through so many failed iterations, and which he was able to leverage because he’d taken such an odd path (having worked as a machinist and trained as an accountant, but grown up on a farm hating all the chores that were his birthright).

Bear in mind, he didn’t call it the Model T because that sounded catchy: There were Models A and B and C as well; there were Model Ls. Few went into production, but he worked his way through the alphabet fair and square.

And meanwhile, others were tinkering, innovating, seeing each other’s innovations, swiping the good parts, building those into their next iteration, showing off those innovations. Swap. Rinse. Repeat.

This is the true path of Progress:

  1. A bunch of curious people Anonymously Tinker, independently and in small groups.
  2. They produce a lot of Interesting Failures, and show them off.
  3. Their knowledge and queer notions Accumulate throughout the population of Anonymous Tinkerers.
  4. They keep going back to the drawing board through many Iterations.
  5. Many folks Simultaneously come up with similar solutions which
  6. catch on in the Marketplace because there is a healthy population of Simultaneous Solutions which
  7. other humans then use to Solve Problems.

Consider The Cell Phone

Consider the cell phone – that is, the modern cell phone, the thing that, bizarrely, you can talk on, and also send quasi-telegraphic textual messages through, and for some reason use to take low-rez pictures.

No one invented the modern cell phone. There are dozens of relevant patents going back over 60 years that are necessary to make a modern cell phone. And this modern phone – with its voice and text and image transfer capabilities – was independently invented several times before it caught hold with Humanity.

What Problem does it solve?

Eighty percent of the world’s cell phones are in the hands of average folks in developing nations, where those phones give them access to economic mobility, social services, and educational resources. Cell phones are bringing democracy and justice to the 99%. There would have been no OWS without modern cell phones, no Arab Spring.

Do you honestly think that any of those dozens of patents started out with some lone Great Man saying “How can I bring peace to the Middle East and prosperity to Africa? Perhaps if I shoehorn a crappy camera into this crappy radiotelephone . . .”

Keep in mind, back in the 1990s “Great Men” did set out to solve the Problem of autocracy in the Middle East. They tried to do it with guns and bombs, and were not successful. Then we tried to solve that problem again in the 2000s, and once again just produced thousands upon thousands of corpses.

And then camera phones – and the mass of humans holding them and using them – took a big bite out of that Problem over the course of a few crazy weeks with a remarkably low body count.

Cell phones rely on spread-spectrum transmission co-invented by Hedy Lamarr (yes, the famously naked 1930s film diva). She invented it as a way to guide torpedoes securely; it didn’t end up baked into the cell phone cake until the 1990s, well after her patent had expired.

With all apologies to Woody Guthrie, his guitar didn’t turn out to be the machine that killed fascists. Neither did Hedy’s spread-spectrum torpedo guidance system – as it wasn’t implemented until the 1960s. Guns and jets and drones and bombs aren’t even that successful as fascist-killing machines. The cell phone, with its crappy keyboard and crappy camera and crappy reception, that’s the machine that kills fascists.

The cell phone, which is the platform for the most promising sector of the American economy.

The goddamn cell phone, that we all curse, that we all love, that we all carry and revere and despise, the amulet of our age.

The cell phone.

And no, there’s no Great Man to put in the textbook alongside the “Cell Phone Revolution” sidebar, because no one invented it. We all invented it.

Solutions And Problems

As it turns out, no human, regardless of what he or she says, really solves Problems by rationally working down the orderly “Great Man” checklist. In reality, humans love spending their spare time – that precious leisure that the old Greeks called “scholē” – exploring novel Solutions for problems that don’t exist.

When we solve a Problem, we don’t custom-craft a Solution on the spot. In reality, we sort through all of the Solutions we already imagined during our daily scholē and pick the one that fits at that moment. Chasing down and exploring solutions in need of problems is the Fundamental Human Craft Project. [7]

The New School

So how does this get us to the schools we want, the kind that will magically help humans find a way to both survive, as economic beasts, and be mutually helpful as social beasts?

Probably, the first step is to stop telling so many Great Men stories. Certainly we need to stop telling them in the simple terms we currently insist on, with our bulleted lists and timelines, with the notion that some folks are Born to Greatness and the rest of us born to toil in those men’s factories, with our greatest goal being to increase their share price by three cents on the dollar.

Was Ford a Great Man? Sure. Was he also a vicious anti-Semite and unscrupulous business man? Almost certainly so. Was Jefferson a Great Man? Sure, why not. Did he also own slaves? Was he also a plagiarist? Sure – that’s part of what makes these Great Men great to talk about, because there’s an argument to be had.

In my humble opinion, the argument is what our school day should focus on. Not telling anyone anything, but fostering the productive arguments, the most fundamental tinkering: tinkering with ideas.

So, that’s my education plan: Stop telling kids so many damn things. Start picking fights with them. Or, better put, start creating a situation where they pick fights with you.

Fundamentally, the problem with how we talk about education is that, although we’re “doing it for the children!”, we’re always talking about ourselves, about what the adults in the room should or shouldn’t be doing, about what will make us feel more secure about their future.

I feel stupid saying this – it should be so obvious – but why does it matter how I feel about my son’s future? If I’m scared or worried or confident, those are my feelings, my problem, based on what I see now, and have no bearing on what his actual life will contain – which, God willing, will continue long after my death. Education policy shouldn’t be about quelling my churning guts – that’s a job for Tumms. Education policy should be about helping our kids so that they are suited to help humanity.

And what helps them – and by extension, all of us – is learning how to search and tinker and pick apart arguments, how to negotiate the inherent human contradictions in Great Men like MLK or Jefferson or Ford, how to see what’s neat, and make it a little neater, and swipe, and swap, and rinse, and repeat.


FYI, much of the foregoing started out as the abortive content of The Worst Speech I Ever Gave, at the 2011 Maker Faire Detroit. I was supposed to be talking about homemade water rockets. See you at Maker Faire Detroit this year!

[1] In case you don’t have the energy to go back and RTFA – which is a tl;dr – let it suffice to say that I trotted out my same, tired, hippy bullshit and suggested that good schools are those that foster compassion and a general interest in being useful to each other.

[2] Some of you might think it’s actually Love that makes the world go round. David Mamet reminds us that those folks are right, too: It’s Love of Money. Zing!

[3] Depressingly, most race tracks are pointless, endless circles, which likely feels all too apt for many students.

[4] If this sounds like more facile hippy BS, then please Google “play is the work of the child” and start digging in; Montessori’s thinking and methods are quite evolved. If you doubt my gloss and want a meticulously documented, very dark look at the history of modern education, check out anything by John Taylor Gatto. You might as well check out John Holt while you’re at it, too.

[5] Yes, a paraphrase, but fair, since Newton likely got it from Robert Burton, who pinched it from Didacus Stella who got it from the Talmud or John of Salisbury, the latter of which tells us it was actually Bernard of Chartres who coined the phrase, although the notion itself probably arises from a variant of the Greek myth of Orion – all of which I got from the many anonymous contributors to Wikipedia, God bless ‘em!

[6] For an exploration of the ramifications of what Ford is talking about, in terms of how you and I live here and now in the Information Age, check out Kirby Ferguson’s absolutely fantastic, very concise and eminently watchable four-part documentary Everything is a Remix (available many, many places online, including here, where I’ve posted it in one easy-to-watch clump).

[7] This notion – and this phrase – is something that occurred to me during an interview with a craft blog; you can check out the whole thing here.

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In it for the Money: Getting Schooled Wed, 20 Jun 2012 04:17:48 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Last Friday my son finished his kindergarten year at Bryant Elementary – an excellent public primary school in Ann Arbor, Mich., conveniently located near our municipal airport and impressive town dump [1]. He learned a shocking amount this year – e.g., he’s now functionally literate and has a solid grip on mathematical concepts I vividly remember my middle school class puzzling over – and I really appreciate everything his teachers and school administrators have done.

But, frankly, it’s hard to be super shocked by these academic achievements. I’m a former English teacher, my wife has taught for at least a decade, and the only consistent forms of entertainment in our house are books – it would be a little weird if he didn’t know how to read yet.

No, what impresses me about my son’s education at Bryant is this: Midway through his school year my blond, Jewish five-year-old told me he wants to be like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Three R’s: Reading, Writing, and Race

I’m sure what I say next will leave some folks incredulous, but prior to MLK Day 2012, my son didn’t know what race was. I’m not saying that he didn’t perceive that different humans have differing features, skin tones, and hair textures. But, in a liberal panic, I had consciously elided the existence of our nation’s system of bright-line racial distinctions. I’m at a loss to justify this action, except that in my heart of hearts I feared that noting difference inevitably led to criticizing difference, and I couldn’t stomach the possibility that I’d plant that seed in him.

Again, I acknowledge that this may seem far-fetched – hiding race in America. I might as well try to hide the sun under a wool blanket. But my son had attended a Jewish daycare. This didn’t leave him wanting for contact with African-American children and adults – this is, after all, still Ann Arbor – but it’s really easy for racial difference, despite being so overwhelming in American life, to seem small compared to the more immediate challenge of navigating the contradictions of a Christian-slanted “secular” world and your Jewish home world. [2]

So, his report card is OK-ish, and his standardized test scores are great [3], but what really intensely pleases me is that my boy wants to be like MLK – that he can conceive that as a goal, that he doesn’t presume that his Jewishness or paleness bar him from that path.

If our goal is to fix the world [4], then this is a solid pedagogical win on the part of Ann Arbor Public Schools – one that my shaky parenting had basically bolloxed in the run-up.

More to the point, as a parent and a citizen, should I be more interested in my local elementary’s march toward “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or in the number of MLKs they can nurture each year?

School Biz

The current fashion – both at the state and national level – is for politicians along the conservative spectrum to argue that their business acumen will inevitably lead to sound governing.

I don’t want to reject their claim out of hand. Not to waste a lot of verbiage on horn-tooting, but I taught and operated a school for about eight years, then spent the next five-plus years writing about business, and have spent my lifetime stewing in my family’s building and real estate dealings. I really do believe there are legitimate business practices that can be usefully ported into the public sector – including the classroom.

But pretending that schools can function like privately-held or, worse yet, publicly-traded companies isn’t just ineffective or misguided; it’s downright stupid. [5]

Measuring Outcomes

The businessmen are right about one thing, though: You need metrics to gauge your progress. And, man, have they ever got metrics for us! They’ve got “dashboards” and “observations” and “evaluations” and “merit pay” and all the standardized tests money can buy! Unfortunately, in the absence of a clearly established and commonly shared notion of what warrants measuring, those metrics are kinda useless. Weight Watchers doesn’t advocate keeping a daily height log, and shop keepers rarely track the sales staff’s carb intake in order to evaluate employee performance.

The common metric in business is money. Are you making more money than you did last quarter? Are your comps up (i.e., have comparable same-store sales increased relative to the same time last year)? If so, “Yeah! Hugs and high fives for all!” If not, you’ve got ‘splaing to do.

Sadly, this is increasingly how we want to talk about schooling: What are the grades? The test scores? The graduation rates and matriculation rates? How many go to four-year universities? How many finish those programs? Who’s got a job and how much is he or she earning?

Of course you can fudge scores and graduate a class of functional illiterates – and public schools are accused of such skullduggery all the time by right-wing pundits. But even when we move away from dumb numbers and into fuzzier, but more reasonable questions of “career readiness” and “marketable skills,” that move doesn’t really change the metric. We’re still saying that the point of schooling – the point of our children’s lives, as they spend at least a third of each day on schooling – is to make more money.

Pardon me for playing to type, but that seems like a pretty goddamn shabby lesson for our kids, and a pretty shitty life goal.

“Hey, kid, what do you wanna be when you grow up?”


If I heard my boy say that, it would turn my guts.

I imagine most Ann Arborites aren’t so different from me on that count: Right, left, and center, rich and poor, my experience is that if we want our children to be doctors and lawyers, then we want that so that they can help their fellow humans, not so that they can make bank. But when we blindly insist on good test scores, good grades, good graduation rates, good numbers, aren’t we just telling them that? Aren’t we just saying: “Earn better! Score more points! Bust bricks, jump on turtles, and collect all the goddamn coins you can!”

Remember this: The bankers and quants and politicians who gutted our economy and sent countless Americans spiraling into ruin were all well-educated point-scorers. They looked great on paper. Oops.

Near the beginning of the school year I attended a kaffeeklatsch hosted by Roberta Heyward (my son’s principal) and Che Carter (principal of Pattengill Elementary where my son will attend grades 3-5.) Bryant is K-2 and Pattengill the corresponding 3-5; they are sister schools and, although miles apart, function as a single unit in many ways.

At one point a parent raised a concern about Bryant students’ readiness as they move up to Pattengill, and then on to Ann Arbor’s highly-regarded middle and high schools. She didn’t say as much, but she was tacitly making references to the fact that Bryant serves the large Section 8 housing developments on that side of town, and purportedly has a high percentage of Title I students (that is, those so impoverished that our federal government will assist with paying for their breakfast and lunch). Principal Heyward immediately acknowledged the concern lurking behind the question, and noted that, anecdotally, Bryant students had an easier time integrating into Ann Arbor’s enormous high schools, when compared with students who had come out of more homogenous elementary schools.

I didn’t put much stock in this at the time, because the question itself seemed classist, and plausibly racist.

But then I saw my boy’s class picture: Of 22 students shown, the gender split is nearly 50/50, and fewer than half the students are “white.” There are at least four different household languages represented among his classmates [6], who hail from as far away as India (and clearly all over the economic spectrum of Ann Arbor itself) [7].

Diverse Rooms Enhance Achievement

There are two things going on here, and I want to take a second to tease them apart. First and foremost, on the bean-counting metrics-obsessed end of things, coping with diversity requires cognitive overhead. When you thrust adults from homogenous systems into diverse ones, they become exhausted and perform poorly. This is, in part, why it is such terrible folly to recruit armed forces from resource-poor, homogenous rural communities and then send those troops into a culture almost entirely alien to them; most of their energy for discernment is used up just trying to figure out if someone is speaking Pashtun or garbled English. Toss a few explosions into the mix, and it’s small wonder some young soldiers shoot first and ask questions never.

Thrust children into heterogenous systems, and their fantastic, spongey little brains thrive and grow. Want a reason that first-generation Americans – those born to immigrants – thrive? Maybe it’s because there is not a moment in their lives, from birth to death, when they aren’t negotiating two (or more) languages, calendars, or systems of evaluation (monetary, ethical, or aesthetic).

So, if all you care about is scores, about raising a generation of earners, then the Tower of Babel classroom is the way to go.

Diverse Rooms for Greater Good

But let’s say you’re interested in something higher. My son’s class photo is much more representative of the America we now live in than Main Street Ann Arbor: I’m looking out the window to my right during lunchtime on a sunny 78 degree Saturday, and all I see are tidy white people in shorts. I see no one who looks like our President, no one who looks like my son’s table-mates, no one who looks like the folks singing to me through my headphones. I don’t even see anyone who looks much like me.

That melting-pot class photo is no accident. AAPS has fascinatingly gerrymandered attendance zones in order to create that American Dream picture. My son’s neighborhood friends – children who live across the street and look like they could by his biological kin – all go to Allen Elementary, which is a five-minute walk from my front door. The result: Among all of the questions my boy now has about race – some of which are actually pretty fascinating [8] – none are even accidentally pejorative.

Schooling Success

So, in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress and test scores, despite less-than-ideal conditions and being kicked around by everyone looking for a slot on a ballot, our teachers are doing pretty well – not just Ann Arbor, but throughout much of Michigan. We’re keeping our heads above water (especial for a state with high enrollment and low education spending).

But maybe “economic viability” is sort of a crappy metric for our children. I look at test scores, and it really tells me nothing about how these children are going to fix the world. After all, those bankers and quants, they had great test scores. They’ve got the ability to fix the world and no desire to do so.

But show me a list of who our kindergartners want to be, and I’ll know something important about our schools. Show me how that list changes in fourth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade … Where’s the drop off?

At what age do I lose my Lincolns and MLKs and Rosa Parkses? How can I keep those numbers up?


[1] The landfill is closed. It’s impressive because the gas from the landfill is captured and burned to generate roughly 3,000 MWh annually.

[2] For example, last year we dropped by a friend’s house in April, and their little girl – the same age as our son – joyfully shouted “We dyed Easter eggs!” To which our boy brightly replied, “Oh! For Passover!” (Pro-tip: one of the symbols displayed during the ritual Passover meal is a boiled egg). This was met with good-natured perplexity from the girl and her parents. These little dissonant cognitive clangs come up almost weekly: Is the day of rest on Saturday or Sunday? Is the New Year in winter or fall? Is Santa Claus real? No, but for the love of God, don’t mention that to the Christian children. Why do gentiles love giving each other gifts, but insist on attributing this gift-giving to somewhat frightening imaginary characters? Buddy, I don’t know! It’s their world, just run with it.

[3] Yup, they have computerized standardized testing for kindergartners now.

[4] And, yeah, it is, at least for him and me. Please see tikkun olam for details.

[5] This goes for non-public (i.e., “private”) schools of all stripes, too. Rule of thumb: If it says “school” on the front of the building, but they actually turn a profit, then it isn’t a “school” in the conventional sense; it’s a scam.

[6] I obviously didn’t get that just from looking at a picture; I’ve also volunteered in his classroom and met parents through school events and birthday parties.

[7] And, yes, his class includes folks who we already knew from our local Jewish Community Center. This was a relief to me – not because of my inborn bigotry, but because I was often the only Jew in class as a boy, and that was often kinda sucky.

[8] For example, why aren’t Sephardic Jews – who are generally indistinguishable from other Middle Easterners – considered “black people”? And if Moses lived in Pharaoh’s house as his son, then he must have been black, too. And if Moses was just a garden-variety Israelite, as the Torah teaches, then the rest of Egypt’s Jews must have been black. If we’re the children of Israel, why aren’t we black?

For example, when he visited the large cooperative workspace I share with several dozen other independent workers he asked, quite reasonably, “Why there aren’t there any black people here?” I was embarrassed – in a knee-jerk, racially sensitive way – to hear that question floating in the air, but more embarrassed by the answer I had to give: I don’t know why. More embarrassed because I’m one of the owners of that business. If anyone should be able to answer that question it’s me, and I was hardly flattered by the honest answer: Because I haven’t fixed that yet, buddy.

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Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District Sat, 19 Jun 2010 00:31:49 +0000 Dave Askins On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts for state representative. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.


Democratic candidates for the 53rd District state House seat at the June 12 Ann Arbor city Democratic Party forum: Jeff Irwin, left; and Ned Staebler, right. (Photos by the writer.)

The Democratic primary in the 53nd District of the Michigan House of Representatives is contested by Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler. The 53nd House District covers the majority of the city of Ann Arbor, and parts of Scio and Pittsfield townships.

The seat is currently held by Rebekah Warren, who was elected to that position in 2006, and is eligible to seek re-election – but has chosen instead to run for the 18th District state Senate seat, currently held by term-limited Liz Brater. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.

This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.

The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 52rd District candidates are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 52nd District

There were two questions asked that received answers with no elaboration: Both Irwin and Staebler are against term limits; Staebler is endorsed by the United Auto Workers.

Opening Remarks

Each candidate was given the opportunity to make some introductory remarks.

Jeff Irwin’s Introductory Remarks

Irwin began by citing his experience serving on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners for just over 10 years. [He currently represents District 11, covering parts of central and eastern Ann Arbor.] He said that experience has given him experience dealing with state programs on the local level – mental health, human services, public health, senior services, disability services. The county government, he noted, is responsible for managing and maintaining those state-level programs. Irwin stated that he is proud to have been an advocate for human services in Washtenaw County.

Jeff Irwin

Jeff Irwin at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

As a county commissioner, he said he’s had to do the exact kind of work he is now asking voters to do for them on the state level going forward – balance a budget during tough economic times.

Overcoming the projected deficit in the Washtenaw County budget – $30 million over the course of this year and next – had been handled “without a tremendous amount of drama,” he said. The way they did it, he explained, was by focusing on the most important priorities first and by reducing cost in administration and overhead.

They’d worked with the unions to reduce costs throughout the organization, he said. They’d been able to preserve services and reduce the budget in a way that was responsible and still allowed the county to maintain its community priorities. That, he said, is exactly the kind of experience required up in Lansing, and that’s why he decided to run for Rebekah Warren’s seat when she announced that she would be seeking a state Senate seat.

He said he’s been honored to be a public servant in the community over the last 10 years and that he hopes he is able to continue to do the work that he loves.

He noted that in addition to his experience as a county commissioner, he spent a number of years working in Lansing as a legislative aide for Alma Wheeler Smith, who was a state senator at the time. He’d also worked with the League of Conservation Voters in various capacities, he said. When he first started out with the league, he said, his job was to go around the state meeting with environmental groups, helping them to organize more effectively to protect Michigan’s environment – air, water, “the beauty that is Michigan.”

He then became executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters – his job was to evaluate the state legislators, producing an annual environmental scorecard, and to advocate for better protection of Michigan’s environment.

He concluded by saying he has the right experience to serve during these tough times and hopes that he can continue to have the honor of serving the community up in Lansing.

Ned Staebler’s Introductory Remarks

Staebler began by telling the audience a bit about his background and why he was running for office. He described himself as coming from a family very deeply rooted in the community and in public service – his family had moved to Ann Arbor in 1831 and his great-grandfather was the mayor of Ann Arbor through the 1920s and 1930s. His grandfather and a handful of others, he said, had founded what is now known as the Michigan Democratic Party. His grandfather chaired that organization for a decade and served as a congressman.

Ned Staebler

Ned Staebler at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

Staebler said he has involved himself in politics since he was “knee-high” stuffing envelopes for Jimmy Carter and others. He said he did public service as a “family business” – spending every Wednesday when he was in high school at a halfway house in Detroit’s Cass Corridor tutoring reading and math skills with learning-disabled people. He said he’s been involved with numerous other public organizations throughout his life.

Staebler told the audience he went off to Harvard thinking that he would continue that tradition of family public service, studying American government there. But it was the early 1990s and it was Bush One versus Clinton – he said he remembered thinking, “Here are two guys who are totally out of touch.” Bush One didn’t know how much a gallon of milk cost and didn’t know about supermarket checkout scanners. Staebler said he wished he didn’t have to go the supermarket and allowed that his wife might say that he didn’t go often enough. And Clinton had very little real-world experience before being elected Arkansas attorney general.

Public service was a high calling, Staebler contended, and if you’re going into it, you ought to have an idea of how the impact of public policy affects real people. That was why he’d made a decision to go off and see the world and experience the world, get a job, pay some taxes, and try to figure out how government interacts with real people. So he went into the world of banking and finance, he said, spending a decade in Chicago and London learning how businesses work, why they grow and why they don’t grow. He woke up one morning 8-9 years later and said, “What am I doing? This was supposed to be a two-year gig where you learned how the world works, then go into public service.”

So he left his job and earned a master’s degree at the London School of Economics in comparative politics while teaching at a high school and coaching three sports. He moved back to Michigan and took a job at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He noted that his wife is a veterinarian in town.

At the MEDC, Staebler said he runs programs designed for small businesses and entrepreneurs to have access to capital they needed in order to grow. He stated that he’s been very active in the community, chairing the city’s Housing and Human Services Advisory Board. He was on the board of the League of Conservation Voters, was on the distribution committee of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, and started his own nonprofit. Staebler said he was running for state rep for one simple reason: He wanted to make sure that for his three-year-old son, Michigan was the kind of place where his son’s generation could get a world-class education, find a job, raise a family and settle down.


Question: What specific bills would you introduce in the legislature to create jobs?

Ned Staebler on Jobs

Staebler said it is something he has spent a lot of time working on as vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He has spent a lot of time working with businesses, he said, and he understands a lot of the challenges they have trying to grow.

The number one challenge they have, he said, is access to capital. In a lot of ways, he said, Michigan is fortunate. Although many people say that it’s been a real problem to be so heavily concentrated in the automotive industry, it meant that Michigan knew how to manufacture things – extrude plastic, bend metal, lay fiberglass. Unfortunately, he said, the things they make – like cars, boats, and furniture – have not been growth industries.

The good news, he said, is that there are a lot of industries that require the same core competencies that are growth industries: wind turbines, solar panels, advanced batteries, medical devices. All of those items require thousands and thousands of parts, he said, and the kind of advanced manufacturing capability that Michigan has. Michigan has 330 advanced research and development centers, a workforce that is incredibly well-trained, a university system that turns out mechanical and chemical engineers, and a community college system that is incredibly flexible at training.

So, how do we get businesses the capital that businesses need? Staebler asked. One of the problems is that they can’t go to a bank, because the collateral value has decreased so much – financing is usually accomplished through the property, plant, and equipment. If your property, plant and equipment are in Michigan and have been used for manufacturing, he said, then it’s been decreasing in value by up to 80% over the last five years. That’s why he helped create a program called the Michigan Supplier Diversification Fund, he said. That fund allows businesses to get loans and transition their businesses to growth industries. He worked with businesses and banks and realized that it was a $1-1.5 billion problem in Michigan alone. But he’d come up with $13 million in his budget, he said. That money has been used to create 4,500 jobs, he contended. He’d then gone through and found another $13 million, and they are now using that funding now.

The good news, said Staebler, is that the Obama administration has just sent to Capitol Hill legislation to create a $2 billion national program based on the model of transitioning to growth industries.

Jeff Irwin on Jobs

Irwin began by identifying different philosophies about how government can be involved in creating jobs. One of those philosophies, he said, is to invest directly in companies and corporations and hope that the benefit trickles down to “all us little people.” The other method, he said, is to invest in a broad foundation, to invest in people and places, to provide infrastructure and education and grow jobs in that way. From a philosophical perspective, Irwin said, he was in the second camp.

Giving a specific example, Irwin said he’d sat down with the CEO of a company that had come to Ann Arbor, Liebherr Aerospace in Pittsfield Township. Irwin said he asked, “Why are you looking at Ann Arbor?” Irwin reported that the reply was that the number one thing they were looking for was top quality talent. Liebherr had been attracted to the area because of the University of Michigan.

Irwin said that’s what Michigan needs to focus on. Michigan is one of only five states in the country that spends more on prisons than on higher education, he noted. And that is emblematic, he continued, of the wrong direction the state is headed. Michigan needs to re-invest in universities, it needs to be a place that produces top talent – that is how to bring meaningful jobs to the area, the kind of jobs people want.

But there are also other areas they could work on, Irwin said: green energy, clean energy, clean tech – everything from supporting green chemistry to supporting new energy projects like wind turbines. One specific thing is to increase the green portfolio standard.

Another thing he’s been working on lately is PACE legislation – Property Assessed Clean Energy. He reported that state Rep. Rebekah Warren has helped get the bill passed in the House and now he is working on getting it passed in the Senate. The bill would provide citizens with tools to invest in their homes to increase energy efficiency and to increase weatherization opportunities. It would save people money, reduce pollution and put people to work right away.

Tax Reform

Question: What is your position on tax reform to reduce or eliminate reliance on property and flat taxes and replace them with a graduated income tax? Will you please raise taxes for schools and human services?

Jeff Irwin on Taxes

Irwin said he would support a graduated or progressive income tax – it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, he said, that would require a revision to the constitution. So what he would work on immediately and directly, he said, is trying to structure the current flat tax in a way that benefits very low-income people. An earned income tax credit is an idea he thought could be explored.

On the question of schools and human service needs, Irwin said the state needs to find a way to raise the revenue to fund those areas. Revenue levels in Michigan, he said, have dropped to the levels we had at the early part of the decade – the general fund has dropped from $9 billion to $7 billion. That is crippling the state’s ability to invest in people and places. This has a cyclical effect, he continued – as the educational system’s quality is eroded, the state has less of an ability to attract businesses and jobs. Generally the approach should be to “broaden the base and lower the rate.” Ultimately the goal would be to implement a graduated income tax, so that people who earn more pay a greater percentage. There also needs to be a progressive approach to cutting within the state budget, he said. To ask employees making $30,000 a year to take the same kind of cut as someone making $100,000 a year is wrong and unfair, he said.

Ned Staebler on Taxes

Staebler also agreed with a graduated income tax – there are 38 states around the country that have one. So he didn’t think a good argument against it is that somehow rich people who live in the state would flee to a state without such a tax. They could already go to a state with no income tax at all, like Florida, he observed.

The Michigan League for Human Services, Staebler said, had a proposal that would cut taxes for 90% of people, but raise $600 million in much-needed revenue to pay for the type of investments in our future that we need. That makes a lot of sense from a progressive perspective, he said.

Staebler was less excited about expanding a sales tax to services, because generally speaking sales taxes are regressive, he said – people with lesser incomes need services, too. There was a shift in the economy from one that is 70% goods-based and 30% services-based to one that is 70% services-based and 30% goods-based. Given that shift, it might be necessary to begin thinking about taxing services. If that happened, he said, he would make sure that it was as fair as possible. A few years ago, when there was a sales tax on services for “about 20 minutes or so,” if your lobbyist was in the room at the time, then your service wasn’t taxed. It needs to be simple and fair, he said.

It’s also a question of what kind of investments we want to make – long-term investments in our future. If you cut $67 million out of your mental health budget, you just saved $67 million … until those people show up in emergency rooms and jails and shelter systems. You might spend $167 million taking care of them, Staebler cautioned.

Closing tax loopholes on businesses is another thing that needed to happen, Staebler said.


Question: With many local school districts struggling to keep their doors open, do you favor legislation that would require multiple districts to consolidate, both through consolidating services and consolidating districts?

Ned Staebler on Consolidation in Education

As sales tax revenues have started to see a little bounce, the state is actually projecting that there’s going to be a little more in the School Aid Fund than originally anticipated, Staebler said. So he predicted that there would be a fight in the course of the next year – are people going to try to steal money from the schools in order to try to cover the overall budget? Education is a top priority for him, he said, and he is proud to have the endorsement of the Michigan Education Association and the Ann Arbor Education Association. He said he would not support raiding the School Aid Fund to balance the general fund budget.

To the question of consolidation, generally speaking Staebler thinks it makes sense that districts are made the “correct” size – sometimes that means consolidation and sometimes that means breaking them up. The academic literature, he said, shows that there is a “sweet spot” for district size before administration gets to be more burdensome than it needs to be. In the state of Michigan, he said, about 3% more than the national average is spent on school administration and that, for Staebler, is a real concern. With limited dollars it is important to make sure they are getting into the classroom instead of being used in administration.

As to privatization, Staebler characterized it as a “false choice” – almost every case where it has been tried, no savings have been found. Instead, what is found is lower wages and lower service levels, and less protection of workers. So he is not in favor of privatization, he said.

Jeff Irwin on Consolidation in Education

Irwin began by distinguishing between vision and outcome. The vision should be focusing dollars on students in classrooms. The desired outcome, he said, is graduation of smart, capable young people in the state of Michigan so that they can go on to be successful in their individual lives.

He suggested there is broad agreement that too much money is spent on administration, and there is an opportunity there. He said he tends to agree with the views of the other candidates with respect to privatization – he isn’t for it.

Irwin said that it is important to focus on the specific examples in Washtenaw County. Here in the Ann Arbor school system, there were 25-26,000 students. Over in Manchester, he said, they had 3,000 students. That seemed too small, he suggested. If you look at Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts, they’re all struggling, he said. And  if you added them all up, together they’d have fewer students than Ann Arbor has in its district. So he supports the idea of trying to find out what the right number of students is to justify the administration and overhead – we do need to find that sweet spot. The state legislature’s role, then, is to incentivize decisions at the local level, he said.

Local districts need to be assisted when they made tangible efforts to consolidate, he said. The state should be in the business of helping school districts work together on busing, human resources, facilities management. That’s something that has been done at the county level, he said – working together with the county, the townships and the cities to say, Okay, nobody really cares which entity is monitoring the buildings and buying the technology.

Budget Experience

Question: What experience do you have managing and balancing budgets and closing budget deficits?

Jeff Irwin on Budgets

Irwin cited his more than 10 years of experience on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners balancing budgets. The general fund a few years ago was around $107 million and that had to be reduced to just under $100 million. In an environment where costs are rising – especially in the area of health care, costs for materials, pension costs – you have to find a way to fund the most important priorities first.

The county board had balanced Washtenaw County’s budget that way, Irwin said. He told the audience that they probably had not heard a lot of drama about it, because they did it the way they should do it at the state level – they’d led from the top. They started by working together with the cities and townships to reduce duplication and to eliminate waste between organizations. There are collaborations on community development, information technology, 911 dispatch – all of which are productive partnerships.

They’d also looked to administrative staff and asked them to reduce compensation, and they also reduced the board’s own budget by 15%, he explained. Then they’d gone to their labor unions and asked them to join in the effort. What happened, he said, was: It worked. The employees stepped up and said they didn’t want to see their brothers and sisters lose their jobs. When you lead from the top, and when you eliminate waste and invest in communication, then you can solve these problems with little drama, Irwin concluded.

Ned Staebler on Budgets

Staebler began by saying that he had a great deal of experience in balancing a budget and dealing with financial statements – he’d spent 10 years in the private sector, and the first couple of those years was balancing trading accounts every day. He is very familiar with balance sheets, he said. He’s been on the governing boards of numerous organizations, he said, and especially during these times of declining contributions, he understood there is a need to find a way to make cuts and become leaner and still provide services.

The last four years, Staebler said, he’s been running a number of programs at the state of Michigan, so he has a great deal of understanding of the types of challenges he would face. For one of those programs, in 2006 the budget was $400 million. This year, he reported, it was $28.5 million. So he understood, he said, how to shave things out of a budget and still accomplish the goals you have.

There were about $35-36 billion in tax credits that have been given out, and there is a misperception that all the credits are going to business, Staebler said. Most of that is actually going to citizens, he said – around $10 billion goes to the homestead credit, and around $10 billion is due to the fact that we don’t tax food, and about $9 billion is going to earned income tax credits and personal income tax exemption.

The part that goes to business, Staebler said, is about $1.9 billion. In that $1.9 billion there are certainly places they could look for savings, he said. For example, $37 million goes to the sellers of satellite dishes. He described how it was a credit that went back to 1974-75. Back then maybe you needed to do that to help get the satellite dish business going, but now there’s a DirectTV on every third house – that’s $37 million that we could spend on schools or human services, he suggested.

Michigan businesses are not taxed when they make phone calls overseas, but they are taxed when they call other Michigan businesses – that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, and that was another $23 million. There was $12 million for companies that drill for oil in Michigan – when the price of gas was $1/gallon that might be okay, but at $4/gallon, Staebler didn’t think so.


Question: The proposed sulfide mines in the UP are threatening some of the most pristine areas of our state. What should be done to protect our state’s natural environment from this threat? What should be done to protect funding for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE)?

Ned Staebler on the Environment

Staebler indicated that he certainly supports fully funding the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and that the review process needs to be more stringent. He does not favor a policy whereby if you submit an application and there is no action within a certain amount of time, then you are automatically approved.

He also supports the idea that studies should be done to establish a need for power plants. There is not only a moral obligation to protect the natural bounty we been given, he said, there is also from a pragmatic perspective a need in the next 50-100 years to power our energy and our economy. Michigan is home to much of the world’s fresh water, he said, and it is therefore no surprise that the biggest industries in Michigan – manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism – are incredibly water intensive industries. That’s why the state needs to make sure we protect our water and make sure it stays clean.

Jeff Irwin on the Environment

Irwin said the environment is an issue he is passionate about and that he’s worked on for many years. He said that he’s actually fought the sulfide ore mining and he is very much against any authorization for spoiling the Upper Peninsula. He said that he is actually from the UP – there is nothing like what we have here in Michigan in all of the rest of the world, he said.

One hundred years ago, Irwin said, when the government was looking at the national park system, they had identified four possible national parks in Michigan – the three that we have, plus something called the Huron Mountain National Park. It was eventually squelched, but he said he would like to bring that idea back.

That national park would be right in the middle of the area where they were talking about doing sulfide mining, Irwin said. Everywhere else that sulfide mining has been done in the world, it has polluted the water table with sulfuric acid, Irwin told the audience. It would totally destroy an area that was once slated to become a national park. As a state legislator, he said, one of the things that he would do is to bring that idea back and establish the fourth national park in Michigan – the Huron Mountain National Park. It’s one of the most beautiful pristine wild areas in the United States, and a park would save it forever.

Another thing that we need to do, he said, is to get serious about pollution permits. We don’t do enough inspecting of polluters in Michigan, he said. The reason for that is, he said, that we generate the money to do the inspections off of the permits. We need to get serious about protecting our air and water in the state, which is critical to our economy, he concluded.

Right to Bear Arms

Question: How do you feel about legislating greater freedoms to bear arms in public, such as at the malls and at schools?

Ned Staebler on Gun Rights

Staebler began by saying that he is not a hunter and that he does not own a gun, but and he has not shot a lot of guns. He recognizes, however, that a lot of people do like to hunt, and they do it responsibly. He said that he is not advocating against their ability to do that. But he agreed that it is not appropriate to have guns in schools. He alluded to his three-year-old, who was running around in the back of the room, as the thing that was most important with respect to guns, namely, keeping them away from kids.

Jeff Irwin on Gun Rights

Irwin began by saying that he hunts with a camera. So while he does not have a lot of personal experience with guns, generally speaking he feels that it is not necessary to legislate an expansion of gun rights in Michigan.

Irwin said that when he was up working in the legislature and the CCW (concealed-carry weapons) law was passed, lawmakers had included an exemption for the legislature and for the courts. So the legislators who passed a very aggressive CCW law did not think it was a good idea for those folks to be able to have the right to carry those weapons in a concealed fashion in the legislative chambers or the courts. So if it’s not good enough for their workplace, Irwin said he doesn’t see why it’s good for our workplaces.

Campaign Finance

Question: Michigan law does not require corporations to publicly disclose contributions to political candidates and organizations or officials. Do you support that kind of disclosure?

Jeff Irwin on Campaign Finance

Irwin stated that transparency is the goal that he works on in the county government, and it is something that needs to be worked on with the state government. Who is supporting who needs to be disclosed aggressively, he stated.

Irwin said he is a big supporter of sunshine laws, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Open Meetings Act – all of those need to be strengthened. He said there are also other opportunities in election law to make some changes that would be productive for Michigan. He is a big believer in absentee voting on demand. It should be possible to vote early in person, he said.

Irwin also suggested that we should explore the idea of making election day a holiday in Michigan, so that the day can be focused on government and making important decisions.

When the term limit laws were implemented a few years ago, he said it meant that a lot of inexperienced people were put at the steering wheel of the state government. The problem is not that there were people who had been in office too long – it was voters who were not kicking out people who needed to be kicked out.

Irwin stressed the need to have a public that has all the tools possible to get involved and get informed and make their voting decisions with full consideration of the record, and who supported who. And part of that is transparency and opening up election laws, he said. He also suggested same-day registration as an idea worth exploring.

Staebler on Campaign Finance

Staebler began by stating that he is not a big fan of the influence of money in politics. He described it as a huge divisive factor in our polity and in our community, which erodes the equality for which we have fought for so long.

But money is a part of the “rules of the game” and he does not feel like candidates would unilaterally disarm. So candidates have to do what they have to do, he concluded. He does not feel like, however, that the First Amendment extended to corporations being able to give money to political candidates and advocate in that way. Corporations already have so many advantages that they do not need additional advantages. He felt like corporate dollars should be removed from the political process.

He agreed with the kinds of voting reforms that Irwin had discussed.

Constitutional Convention

Question: Do you think we should have a constitutional convention and why?

Ned Staebler on a Constitutional Convention

Staebler said there are a lot of things that are problematic about the state’s constitution. He said he would love to open up the constitution and talk about our income tax system. That would be fairly easy to do at a constitutional convention, he said.

But given the lack of leadership that he sees at the state level right now, and given the huge amount of division that we have right now, and considering the way that elections are trending for this year, and given term limits and the turnover of highly qualified people, he is concerned that a potential constitutional convention would not go very well.

It would cost a lot and we would end up with a document that would potentially be much worse. He concluded that he is not in favor of having a constitutional convention.

Jeff Irwin on a Constitutional Convention

Irwin allowed that it is a tough question because there are some significant opportunities and significant risks associated with a constitutional convention.

Irwin said that he is personally in favor of having a convention. There is a constitutional provision, he said, that stipulates that no more than 10% of gas tax revenues can be spent on public transportation. With that provision in the constitution, he said, Michigan will never be able to invest in transit the way that it’s necessary to revive our urban centers like Detroit. The state is way behind in mass transit, he said, and Michigan would be a much better state if we had rail and bus all working together. We would never have that as long as the constitution is written the way it is, he said.

There’s a possibility of a graduated income tax – Irwin stated that we need such a tax. There are things written into the constitution, he said, that are totally bigoted – Proposal B, for example, that limits the rights of gay people. He characterized it as a horrible thing that needs to be changed and something that can be changed at the constitutional convention.

He allowed that there could be some crackpot who comes along and says, Yes, let’s have a death penalty, let’s make it even more difficult for gay and lesbian couples. But he said that Michigan is already one of the more backward states with respect to gay and lesbian issues – it really couldn’t get much worse. With respect to abortion, he said, Michigan was a pre-Roe state, which means that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would be illegal in Michigan. Michigan couldn’t really get much more anti-choice or anti-gay, he said. And those are the big threats that he sees in any constitutional convention. He called for doing something bold to overturn some of the institutional barriers.

Funeral Regulations

Question: In Michigan, a death certificate must have a signature from a funeral director to be legal. This greatly increases the cost of funerals. Is this something that you would work against?

Jeff Irwin on Funeral Regulations

Philosophically speaking, Irwin said, he is a huge believer in individual rights – we should be letting people choose how they live and how they die and make their own decisions about how that’s handled. It’s not a decision that government should be making for people. The government should not be funneling people to certain services. So he concluded that the state should change that law.

Irwin said it should be made easier for people to choose various options – green burial, for example, or cremation. Government should be about empowering people to make their own decisions about their lives and their deaths. It should not stipulate what industry they should go to after they’re done, he concluded.

Ned Staebler on Funeral Regulations

Staebler stated that it is generally speaking important for individuals to be the ones who make their own decisions about those things. It’s unfortunate if cost becomes a pressing concern, when in that circumstance costs should not be a concern of a family who has lost a loved one.

But he said he also recognizes that there are some practical concerns there as well. He said he is willing to talk about the issue, but working on it would probably not be particularly high on his priority list, given some of the other issues that are going on in the state right now.

Crossing the Aisle

Question: What’s your perspective on how to work with the opposite party?

Jeff Irwin on Working with Republicans

Irwin stated that he’d had opportunity to work with the opposite party on any number of occasions. As a legislative aide, he learned that if you want to get something done, you have to know how to work with the opposite party.

At the local level, he said, he had worked very well with members of the opposite party on the county board of commissioners. You need to have an attitude when you go into it that you’re not trying to score points for your team, you’re trying to get something done for the state.

Irwin said that he would reach out his Republican colleagues and find out what things they agree on, then focus on those things. There are ideas that can be accomplished that are not necessarily partisan ideas, he suggested. An example of that, he said, was the PACE legislation. He thinks there is a good opportunity to get that bill passed – it is an environmental idea, an idea that is good for the economy, an idea that would save people money. It does not touch on any of the Republican hot button issues, he said. It is a way to help save energy, and at the same time put people in the trades to work, he said. It is not going to hurt any particular industry that was a big investor in the Republican Party.

Another area Irwin felt he might be able to work on with Republicans is the local food movement. If we want more local food that’s fresher and healthier, the Republicans happen to represent people who grow the food – let’s find opportunities to get that food into our schools, into our universities, into our prisons, and into our farmers markets, he concluded.

Staebler on Working with Republicans

Staebler described it as a question that he hears when knocking on doors all the time: How are you going to get this done? He allowed that it is a challenge, given that there is a Republican-controlled Senate.

Term limits he pointed to as an additional obstacle. But he stated that he is an optimist and things are getting better and they will continue to get better. The plus side to term limits, he said, is that some of the most ideological folks are termed out.

A lot of folks in the Senate will be coming over from the House and they will have had a chance to work together already. He pointed to a bipartisan freshman caucus that has been started, focused on outcomes. He characterized the first effort of that caucus as marginally successful, but it has gotten some conversations started. Because of term limits, those participants in the bipartisan freshmen caucus will, in many cases, be in leadership positions for the next term.

He allowed that it is important to focus on outcomes – everyone could agree that we want good schools, and healthy kids, and a good economy – but focus on process is very important, because that’s how you get those outcomes. A good model, he suggested, is what President Obama did with health care. After Massachusetts, when everybody said it was dead, Obama said it’s not dead, and this is the process we’re going to use: We’re going to get everybody in the room – Republicans and Democrats – and let’s work on the 200 things we all agree on. And they had gotten something done. It’s not perfect, but it’s something, Staebler concluded.

Right-to-Life and Pro-Choice

Question: Do you favor right-to-life or choice?

Ned Staebler on Abortion

Staebler began by stating that he is pro-choice. He said he’d always been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood, not only for their reproductive rights activity but also for all the other things they did.

Jeff Irwin on Abortion

Irwin stated that he is definitely pro-choice, and has a record of supporting Planned Parenthood through the county government. The county supports the prenatal care program, which is very important at the local level.

Up in Lansing, he said, a lot of the challenges are around access to choice. In many parts of the state, the situation is different from here – there is not access to choice. There are folks in Lansing who are trying to deny access to choice, passing more aggressive consent laws, instituting waiting periods and the like, Irwin cautioned.

He told the audience they can count on him when efforts are made in Lansing to restrict access to choice and make it more difficult to get the kind of medical care they are seeking – he would stand against those efforts.

The Senior Vote

Question: Research has shown that voters in primaries are 70% senior citizens. How are you planning for this?

Ned Staebler on Senior Voters

Staebler said that his campaign’s analysis confirms the trend of seniors voting. The average age in the voter file is 61, he said. But he said he has not changed his campaign or tailored things remarkably different. He still knocks on every door and asks people what issues ae important to them. He finds that many of the same issues that are important for younger families are also important to seniors. His door-to-door campaign is simply about explaining who he is, and what he is about, and why he is running.

Jeff Irwin on Senior Voters

One of the issues he hears frequently, Irwin said, is access to health care, and home care, and the ability to age in place. There are opportunities to keep someone in their home and provide care to someone in their home, he said, that are actually less expensive than going into a hospital or a nursing home-type facility.

The opportunities need to be expanded, Irwin said. It is also important, he said, to make sure that seniors have access to the community – it is important to have countywide transit. Seniors need to have demand-response transit available so that they can get to their doctors, he said, or come downtown and take advantage of the various cultural opportunities.

Consumer protection is also an important facet of the issue, Irwin said. Something he had learned as a county commissioner for 10 years, is that public officials don’t know everything and there are people out in the community who do have knowledge about the serious issues, and it is important to listen to them. Most of what he knows about senior issues, he said, came from working with his colleague on the county board, Barbara Bergman, and working with seniors themselves.

Followup question: Concerns are not the same across all age groups. There will soon be more seniors than elementary school kids. How does that affect what you plan to do about the budget?

Ned Staebler on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

As he has been knocking on doors, Staebler said he has certainly heard about the health care issue. He said that there is a perception that when the federal health care bill passed, everyone would have a federal health care plan. The reality is, he said, that there are now 50 health care plans, and every state will have to make a whole host of decisions over the next couple of years about what that will look like.

Especially for Medicaid will be the question of what is covered and how much is covered, Staebler said. There are a couple of different ways we could set up health care exchanges. Option one would look something like Medicare Part C, he explained, where if your plan meets certain standards, then it can get listed. As a result, you get 12,000 plans and you have to hire a consultant to walk you through which one is right for you.

Option two on the health care exchanges is more along the lines of what a corporation or the University of Michigan has, which is to go out to insurance companies and say, Okay, here are the criteria for the apples-to-apples comparisons that I want – show me what you’ve got. And then, for example, three plans would be chosen and offered to members. That’s something that a lot of time needs to be put into debating over the next couple of years, Staebler said.

Jeff Irwin on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

Based on his previous experience working for the legislature, Irwin said, there is no single industry that has more lobbying power than the insurance industry. They are tremendously powerful in the process in the legislature, he warned.

If he were given the opportunity to represent the community, Irwin said, they could count on him to look out for the public interest – not the corporate interests – as the debate on the health care exchanges unfolds. Insurance companies are very happy to collect premium payments, he said, but when it comes time for someone be paid on a legitimate claim, they make all sorts of excuses. It is one of the reasons he was motivated to get into politics, he said.

He stressed that it is important to realize the promise of the federal health care reform. He said he had wanted a single-payer system with the public option – that was not what we got. What we got was an opportunity to try to get it right in Michigan – to try to make sure that the options covered on the exchange have the widest range and the lowest cost possible.

Summary Statements

Each candidate gave a summary statement.

Jeff Irwin Sums Up

Irwin began his summary statement by saying that the choice of public servants is very important. He said he has been honored to serve the community for 10 years on the county board of commissioners and wants to use that experience to focus on Michigan’s most important priorities.

Education funding is a critical need right now, Irwin said. We’re currently underfunding a variety of educational programs and cutting support for universities and colleges, he warned. It’s a recipe for economic disaster, he said. The number one economic development priority that we have in the state is focusing on education funding – getting back on track with education.

The education issue should be addressed on the front end of the model instead of on the back end. In Washtenaw County there is an aggressive program to get people who were nonviolent offenders and not a threat to society back into the community. It’s been found that it is less expensive and more productive.

We also need to focus on the natural environment, Irwin said. Do we have clean air? Do we have clean water? People need to be able to get out into nature and enjoy the natural splendor at Michigan has, Irwin said.

Those are his top two priorities, Irwin said: education funding and environmental protection. He concluded by saying that he has the experience to get the job done up in Lansing.

Ned Staebler Sums Up

Michigan faces a lot of challenges right now and the audience asked a lot of good questions, Staebler said. There’s 14% unemployment and the budget situation is not looking so strong.

We’re underfunding our education system, and we’re not funding the DNRE the way we need to, Staebler continued. But, he stated, we can meet these challenges. We don’t have any other choice but to meet these challenges, he said.

At this stage in Michigan’s history, Staebler continued, we don’t need just more good representation. Good representation is reactive, he said. It’s about showing up and voting the right way, advocating for things and supporting things. What we need right now is proactive leadership, he said.

Leaders find a problem, figure out what is causing it, design a solution to solve it, and then get the resources they need to bring the solution to fruition, Staebler said. He stated that he has a 15-year track record in the private sector, the public sector, and the nonprofit sector of solving real problems. At this point in its history, Michigan needs more leaders, he concluded.

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Michigan Dems Primary: House 52nd District Sat, 19 Jun 2010 00:31:34 +0000 Dave Askins On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the state representative seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.

Christine Lee Jeff Lee

Democratic candidates for the 52rd District state House seat at the June 12 Ann Arbor city Democratic Party forum: Jeff Lee, left; and Christine Green, right. (Photos by the writer.)

The Democratic primary in the 52nd House District is contested by Christine Green and Jeff Lee. The district covers the better portion of western Washtenaw County and small parts of the city of Ann Arbor.

The 52nd District seat is currently held by Pam Byrnes, who was elected to that position in 2004 and is term-limited. She is running for state senate in District 18, a seat now held by Liz Brater, who is also term-limited. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.

This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.

The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 53rd District candidates Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler, which are occasionally referenced by Lee and Green, are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District

Two questions were asked that received answers with no elaboration: Both Lee and Green are against term limits; Green is endorsed by the United Auto Workers.

Opening Remarks

Each candidate was given the opportunity to make some introductory remarks.

Jeff Lee’s Introductory Remarks

Lee began by asking if he could be seen if he didn’t stand. As Lee began his remarks from a seated position, Eunice Burns – who was seated in the audience – told him he’d have to talk louder if he was going to sit.

Jeff Lee

Jeff Lee at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

Lee re-started by telling the audience he’d lived in the area for about 20 years, had attended the University of Michigan, and earned two degrees there. The last four years, he said, he’d spent working for the American Association of University Professors, working on higher education issues across the state.

Lee said Jeff Irwin had made a great point about the budget issues and how they need to approach it. The budget is the beginning of what the legislature does, not the end of it, Lee said. There are a lot of things that need to be done to fix the state, he said – too many people in the state are not working. The job of the legislature is to get things moving in the right direction, but Michigan seems to be “stuck in the mud.” He described the educational system as “good, but could be better.” The taxation system is “not good and needs to be better.” A lot of issues don’t get addressed because we’re worried about how to spend the money that we collect, he said.

Lee said he wants to go to Lansing because Michigan needs direction, needs to move forward. Instead of being last in economic growth year after year, when compared with other states, Michigan needs to set the groundwork so that it could be first in growth. Michigan should not be the state that people look at with a little bit of pity.

Lee allowed that he did not have the same experience that other people had – but it’s not about experience, it’s about ideas, he contended. It’s about what we can do moving forward, not what we’ve done in the past.

Christine Green’s Introductory Remarks

Green introduced herself by saying that she’d been practicing law in Ann Arbor for 25 years, working in the area of civil rights and employment. She said she often sees people who have lost their jobs or who are underemployed. There has been a really “ugly turn” in the last few years, she said. People are not getting replacement employment, they are losing their insurance and unemployment benefits, they’re losing their homes – they’re really suffering. Another thing she’s noticed is that while people are in this disadvantaged position, insurance companies are denying legitimate claims – she is seeing more and more of that and has heard more talk of that as she’s been door-to-door campaigning.

Christine Green

Christine Green at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

She is also seeing more people laboring under non-compete clauses – it is something common in this geographic area, because the high-tech industry is very big on non-compete clauses, she said. She sees people who are not able to make a living for two or three years because of those clauses.

Legislation is needed, she said, to address some of these problems. Her first priority is to create good-paying jobs for people of this area. She said she’d look everywhere for jobs – new industries need to be brought to the state like wind energy, biotechnology, and the life sciences. She said she’d be an advocate for embryonic stem cell research, for higher education, and for small business. She noted that her own law firm is a small business and is thus very tuned in to the problems that small businesspeople have. The state could do more for them – like tax credits that would allow them to provide health insurance for their employees.

We need to be better stewards of public money, and of our natural resources, she said. She noted that she serves on the Scio Township board, but that really she is a political outsider. People can tell what her values are from the things that she’s done – the kind of law she practices, her work with Planned Parenthood for many years, her work with the Michigan Environmental Council. She said she would incorporate those values in her work in Lansing.


Question: What specific bills would you introduce in the legislature to create jobs?

Christine Green on Jobs

Green picked up on the ending remarks of Jeff Irwin, who had talked about PACE legislation (Property Assessed Clean Energy) as a way to put people to work on energy improvements to their homes, using a voluntary property assessment.

Green suggested amendments to the building code stipulating that buildings need to be more energy-efficient. That would stimulate the production of new products like new drywall and roofing, and create jobs. She said she is very much in favor of those kinds of policies – they have no direct cost but would stimulate growth and create jobs.

Another suggestion from Green was a low-carbon fuel standard – that would encourage fledgling industries in the creation of advanced batteries for hybrid and electric cars.

Investment in infrastructure is also important, Green said. Some businesses feel like it’s expensive to do business in Michigan because they have to frequently repair their equipment due to the poor quality roads. Infrastructure investment creates jobs, Green said, and makes the state more attractive to businesses. Incentives need to be a part of the equation, but should be evaluated in the context of the total amount of the state’s revenue. The incentives should also be evaluated by the standard of whether they really create jobs – if not, then they shouldn’t be continued.

Education needs to be supported as well, said Green. If education is cut and that causes a cut in people power, then that means those people are not working and putting money into the economy. Investing in education would create jobs, because it’s very labor intensive, she concluded.

Jeff Lee on Jobs

Lee said it is absolutely important to have a great educational system. If we’re going to attract and keep talent, it’s because people want to go to great schools. We also absolutely have to have great roads, he said. He cited a study out of Michigan State University that reported Michigan companies have to invest more in packing because our roads are so bad that products get damaged when shipped over the roads.

In terms of jobs, he said, the tax structure is set up in a way that people feel like they’re getting “nickeled and dimed to death.” What’s needed, he said, is stability, so that if someone wants to invest in Michigan they’d know what the tax burden is going to be in the next 3-5 years. He also called for greater transparency in the tax structure.

More specifically, he said that small businesses need to be helped through the regulatory maze so that they can get started or expand. Such businesses need to be able to focus on their business. They should not have to become experts in regulation and permitting – they should be able to focus on things like getting funding, developing customers and getting their business up and running.

Tax Reform

Question: What is your position on tax reform to reduce or eliminate reliance on property and flat taxes and replace them with a graduated income tax? Will you please raise taxes for schools and human services?

Christine Green on Taxes

Green agreed with other candidates that we should head towards a graduated income tax. Michigan is in the minority of states that do not have one, she said. She is more in favor of a sales tax on services, because she thinks there is a way to implement it while “blunting the regressive effect.” Instead of having a sales tax on services with certain exceptions, she suggested a sales tax on certain services, but leave everything else out. That would have to be done very carefully, she allowed, but there were ways to do it to blunt the regressive effect and generate additional revenue.

She said the state needs to look at the corporate tax – the 22% surtax. Regardless of how you feel about it, she said, there is a perception that it’s unfair and overly complicated. So that needs to be addressed. We have to bear in mind, she said, that the state is below the average in the taxes that we pay. Our taxes and our expenditures, she stressed, should reflect our values and she was not sure that is currently the case.

Jeff Lee on Taxes

Lee agreed with the remarks that other candidates had made. In the long term, going to a graduated income tax is the right move, he said. It would require a constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention to change. He said we need a broader and a simpler tax system, something that grows with the economy.

He also said that it’s important to prioritize our investments. It is important to be proactive in spending money – you can keep people from needing services by being proactive on the front end. We need to invest in the things that will grow Michigan, he said, not invest in things just because we’ve already been spending money on them. That means spending more money on education, more money on human services and helping people find jobs, instead of spending money just because that’s how it’s allotted.


Question: With many local school districts struggling to keep their doors open, do you favor legislation that would require multiple districts to consolidate both through consolidating services and consolidating districts?

Christine Green on Consolidation in Education

Generally speaking, Green said, she does not favor consolidation of districts. However, she said, for services, she feels there are some services that can be provided regionally. School districts could get together, for example, and provide bus service. Generally, she thinks that voters want their schools to reflect their own concerns and that is best done on a very local level. People want their own school board, she said. They want access to their own school board and they want to say how their schools are run. And that is a good thing, she said.

Consolidation of services is a good thing, she said, but she does not necessarily think that privatization of those services is desirable.

Jeff Lee on Consolidation in Education

Lee noted that in some counties there is consolidation of food services and purchasing at the intermediate school district level. So there are some examples of school districts saving money by working together, he said. That could be improved. A lot of it, however, is up to the districts, he said.

Districts need to be able to make decisions that are in their best interests. Consolidation could work, but if the state forces school districts to merge, it might not be a natural fit, and it might not be in the best interests of the community. He said that the state should try to help schools consolidate if they decide it’s in their best interests. He is against privatizing, saying all that does is take the same people and give them jobs with lower wages and lower benefits.

Lee also stressed that it’s important for students to have the opportunity to take classes in a variety of different subjects.

Budget Experience

Question: What experience do you have managing and balancing budgets and closing budget deficits?

Christine Green on Budgets

Green began by noting that she’s run her own business for 25 years. She also noted that she is a Scio Township trustee, and balancing the budget is part of that responsibility. She has also been on the governing boards of several organizations in that capacity of managing budgets, she said. She has not had experience with deficits – due to good planning, she said.

There are a lot of places where money can be saved, she suggested. We are spending money keeping people in prison who are not a danger to society, such as sick people, and people who haven’t committed violent crimes but who can’t be paroled under current laws until they’ve served their minimum sentence, due to truth-in-sentencing laws. They could be cared for better in a different facility.

Another thing the state should do is continue with the plan to reduce legislative salaries by 5% and go even further – it is a small part of the budget, she said, but still important, given everyone’s suffering.

Jeff Lee on Budgets

Lee indicated that he agreed with Irwin’s remarks. He said he is on several nonprofit boards and that giving is down while the need is up. The group he works for cut the budget by about one-third and actually managed to provide more services, just by being efficient and making sure they aren’t doing anything they don’t need to do, and making sure the things they do, they do well. He said that could be translated to the state level.

The state needs to make sure they are getting their money’s worth out of the contracts they award, Lee said. They need to make sure that tax credits that are awarded are actually having the desired effect. He also called for simplification of the tax code. He said there are many areas that could be cut, and he stressed the need to be proactive – we can’t just throw people in prison and think that when they’re released they won’t rely on the government to provide for them. It’s important to make them functional members of society. More than anything else, we need to prioritize, he said, and put our money in the areas that will help us grow and not just do what we’ve been doing in the past.


Question: The proposed sulfide mines in the UP are threatening some of the most pristine areas of our state. What should be done to protect our state’s natural environment from this threat? What should be done to protect funding for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE)?

Christine Green on the Environment

Funding for the DNR, Green said, is extremely important. She didn’t think she could find anyone in the room who would be against protecting Michigan’s natural resources – that’s what makes Michigan what it is, she said. She supports full funding for the DNRE. She also supports strong review processes.

Green said that she knows there is some activity in Lansing trying to limit the review of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment for activities like drilling and mining. The state’s public service commission should be involved in some of the review processes as well. What can be done immediately, she said, is to make sure that the review process is very strong. With respect to new power plants, there needs to be a determination that there is actually a need for such plants. A good review process needs to be in place for all activities that could potentially harm our natural resources, she concluded.

Jeff Lee on the Environment

Lee indicated that he felt Christine Green was exactly right. He characterized it as a “no-brainer.” Michigan had unique natural resources in the Great Lakes and should protect them – it is not a political issue, but rather a quality of life issue, he said. We don’t want to throw our quality of life away just because we can make more money on a copper mine.

There needs to be a public review process, he said, and that process needs to reflect the values of the community. On the subject of green energy, he said that if you are interested in creating more green energy and sustainable energy – it doesn’t mean that if he said it was fine with him to have a wind turbine in his own backyard that it was okay to have one in your backyard. The decision-making process needs to be public, he said.

Right to Bear Arms

Question: How do you feel about legislating greater freedoms to bear arms in public, such as at the malls and at schools?

Jeff Lee on Gun Rights

Lee stated that he is not in favor of having more guns in schools – which he said should not be a surprise to anyone. He respects everyone’s right to carry a weapon, but if you are in a classroom and a student disagrees with a grade that you gave them, that’s not going to be a very fair discussion if someone has a sidearm. He also worries about the possibility that class discussions would not be as free and open if one of the participants has a sidearm. Lee said he is not in favor of guns in schools and that includes universities as well.

Christine Green on Gun Rights

Green stated that she is not in favor of a broadening of gun rights. She noted that it is important to recognize that there is always some restriction on all of our rights. She also stated that it’s important to respect people who do exercise their right to bear arms and to do so respectfully. It is an important part of the Michigan economy, she said. However, she allowed that guns frighten her and handguns frighten her even more.

Campaign Finance

Question: Michigan law does not require corporations to publicly disclose contributions to political candidates and organizations or officials. Do you support that kind of disclosure?

Jeff Lee on Campaign Finance

Lee stated that we need transparency – we need to know who is supporting candidates.

Christine Green on Campaign Finance

Christine Green stated that she would like to increase access to the voting process – she is in favor of full disclosure, she said. On the Scio Township board, she said she is one of a couple of people who have really pushed for putting their meeting packets online. The material is always available under the Freedom of Information Act, she said, but why not have the material available to the public on the day of the meeting? She is in favor of legislation that would buffer the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision that changed the way corporations can make contributions to political campaigns.

Constitutional Convention

Question: Do you think we should have a constitutional convention, and why?

Jeff Lee on a Constitutional Convention

Lee began by saying that he agreed with comments of Ned Staebler, who had concluded that he was not in favor of having a constitutional convention because the potential for getting a worse document out of that process is too great.

Lee said someone told him that we shouldn’t  have a constitutional convention because every “nut job” will try to put some kind of crazy clause in there and we will be worse off than we are today. He characterized that as a valid argument. On the other hand, he said that Michigan has a lot of problems and is no longer a 1960s state. Michigan really needs to look at how it’s going to be a state in the 21st century, he said. If there is a constitutional convention, he said, its success in turning out a better document than we have now will depend on voters sending representatives to the convention who can get the job done.

Christine Green on a Constitutional Convention

Tactically, Green said it is a pretty easy question. Addressing Jeff Irwin’s suggestion that things couldn’t get much worse with respect to gay and lesbian rights and abortion rights, she said that she thinks it could actually get much worse.

Philosophically, Green felt like there are good reasons for having a convention and good reasons against it as well. Cost is a main reason she cited as being against it. A convention would also be very time-consuming. What we need to do right now, she said, is to roll up our sleeves in Michigan and get to work and figure out how to deal with some of these issues that are pressing right now. Some of the things that people would like to accomplish with a constitutional convention, she said, could be accomplished by other means – through a constitutional amendment, for example.

Funeral Regulations

Question: In Michigan, a death certificate must have a signature from a funeral director to be legal. This greatly increases the cost of funerals. Is this something that you would work against?

Christine Green on Funeral Regulations

Green said she doesn’t think she would actively work in favor of removing the requirement – there are reasons why rules like that are in place. She said that right now she would not be in favor of sponsoring legislation that would lift that requirement. A lot of the cost comes from other services that funeral directors provide, she said. Saying she’s sensitive to the issue of cost, she added that she’s also mindful of the fact that the regulation is there for a purpose.

Jeff Lee on Funeral Regulations

Lee said there is always room for exceptions – you want people to have the right to choose in as many areas as possible. We don’t want to burden somebody with costs during the grieving process, he said, but usually such regulations are in place for a reason. To be honest, he said, he did not know the reasons why the regulations are there. And that is perhaps a reason to have a conversation – if someone feels that it’s an onerous cost.

Crossing the Aisle

Question: What’s your perspective on how to work with the opposite party?

Christine Green on Working with Republicans

As a lawyer for 25 years, Green noted that you have to be good at negotiation – most cases do not go to trial, they settle. So she has developed some very good negotiating skills and she planns to use the skills in Lansing, she said. It involves give-and-take and compromise, she said.

It also involves not giving up your principles, staying true to your principles and pushing that issue but deciding what you can give up. What’s the most important part of the package the client really has to have before she or he can walk away from the case? On the Scio Township board, she said, she figured that perhaps not everyone on the board is a Democrat, even though they all had been elected as Democrats. They are still able to work together despite differences in opinion – they listen to each other and are respectful of each other. The same concept could work at the state level, she suggested. She described her work at Planned Parenthood – the organization works with right-to-life people on a variety of different projects, she said. You find an issue that you agree on, for example: Let’s prevent unintended pregnancies. It is important to go down to a specific level on a point of agreement and build from there, she said.

Jeff Lee on Working with Republicans

Lee said that it’s important to find common ground and it’s important to focus on outcomes. He said that there is a lot of focus on process and on whether points can be won for introducing an amendment, for example. There is a lot of emphasis on whether somebody can get credit for something, so that they can come back to voters and say, “Hey look what I did!” Instead, they should be able to say both parties worked together to produce a bill that is good for Michigan. Instead of focusing on who gets credit for something, he said, it is more important to figure out how everybody can succeed.

Right-to-Life and Pro-Choice

Question: Do you favor right-to-life or choice?

Christine Green on Abortion

Green stated that she is absolutely pro-choice. For her, medical privacy is the issue – it is something that a woman has to discuss with her doctor. In no other place do we invade that relationship, she said, and we should not in this case either.

Jeff Lee on Abortion

Lee stated that he is also pro-choice. He also said he is a supporter of comprehensive sexual education and access to family planning information.

The Senior Vote

Question: Research has shown that voters in primaries are 70% senior citizens. How are you planning for this?

Jeff Lee on Senior Voters

The first thing you have to do, Lee said, is to reach out to everybody. Many seniors, he suggested, have lived in the state all their lives and they are interested in leaving a legacy, something that is better than it was when they were young. It is important to listen to them because they have experience, he said.

Christine Green on Senior Voters

Green said she has not changed her strategy based on the prevalence of older voters. She is trying to knock on every door she possibly can – regardless of age or any other factor. Regardless of age group, a lot of the concerns, she said, seem to be the same.

A lot of senior citizens tell her that they are retired and don’t need to worry about a job for themselves, but the economy will affect them just as much or more than the rest of us. They care about all the issues that the rest of us care about, she concluded. Some of the seniors, she said, are potentially sensitive to some of the unfairness that goes on, some of the ways that individuals are being taken advantage of – insurance money that is being denied for legitimate claims, for example.

Followup question: Concerns are not the same across all age groups. There will soon be more seniors than elementary school kids. How does that affect what you plan to do about the budget?

Christine Green on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

Green began by saying, “We cannot let our seniors down.” Seniors are people who have worked their whole lives – they helped raise us in one way or another, whether parents or teachers.

We’re going to have to address revenue, though, because we do have a number of seniors who are not generating income, she cautioned. That has to be taken into consideration, she said, when the state makes revenue decisions. They have to take it into account when planning for services. She is in favor of making the delivery of services more efficient rather than cutting them. She concluded by saying that we owed a special debt to all the people who helped raise us.

Green warned that there would probably be some unintended consequences of the new federal health care bill – she had learned from her work with Planned Parenthood that the state has a lot to do with delivery of health care.

Jeff Lee on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

Health care is going to be an issue, he said – that would be a no-brainer. He said he’d heard from older voters with worries about how they are going to pay for all the prescriptions that they have. They also have housing issues – not just mortgage issues, but issues also with utility bills.

He noted that some of the seniors he talked to reported that their children have moved out of state, because they could not find jobs here in Michigan. They could not afford to travel to California or Florida to visit their children and their children could not afford to fly back to Michigan. That is a shame, he said.

Summary Statements

Each candidate gave a summary statement.

Jeff Lee Sums Up

We need to be proactive and we need to fix problems, Lee began. It’s not just the problems that we have, it’s the problems that we are going to have.

We need to find a way to build the Michigan that we want to have and not just take the Michigan that we’ve inherited. He related a conversation that he’d had with an older couple who told him that they do not have very much time left in this world and they want to see the kind of Michigan that they grew up in – a place they were proud of. We can do that, he said.

It will take leadership and vision, though. We can have a world-class education system and we can have a globally competitive job market – we can do that, Lee said, but it would take hard work. Business as usual would not be acceptable.

Christine Green Sums Up

Green said that as she goes door-to-door, an evening when somebody at the door does not break down and cry is the exception, not the rule.

People are underwater on their homes, they’re losing their jobs, they’re not getting their disability payments when they are disabled, they are laboring under noncompete agreements in some fields, they are truly suffering. She said that she doesn’t think the government is really working for them right now, and we need to turn that around.

We need to make sure that the government works for the people, she said. We’ve got to create jobs, and if we do that the economy will be healthier. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that Michigan is a beautiful state, that it is unique among all the states, and we need to be able to preserve that. And we need to capitalize on that in order to create jobs – our environment is an asset that we should invest in and protect like any other asset.

We need to rebalance the power so that individuals are not so much at the mercy of large corporations, Green said. She would be an advocate for individual rights, an advocate for the environment, an advocate for education, and for small businesses that want to make Michigan part of their future.

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