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Rochelle Riley: Do Michigan leaders finally get that education is the key?

From the Detroit Free Press

By Rochelle Riley

June 2, 2013

MACKINAC ISLAND — As the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference wound to a close last week, the inevitable question echoed across the island: What did you think?

For the first time, I could say with conviction, that it was exactly what it needed to be. Over the years, the conference has been a vehicle to discuss the auto industry, jobs, manufacturing, politics, mostly all at the same time. And there was some of that this year.

But this year, Sandy Baruah and Tammy Carnrike produced a conference with a theme, with a single topic so overwhelming that it made clear to those who legislate, build, litigate, incorporate and validate that nothing — not Detroit’s renaissance, not Michigan’s reinvention — works without ensuring that all of our children and future work force are educated.

It’s education, stupid.

In 1992, when James Carville used a variation of that phrase in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton’s staff, it left the room and became the mantra of the successful election.

Two decades later, southeast Michigan leaders gathered on an island and focused on what really is true: It’s education, stupid.

Is it possible that Michigan leaders finally understand that we are losing our future work force, our global intellectual ranking, our worth, if we don’t fix education? Can it be that they realize that renaissance, reinvention and readiness all depend on how and what we teach our kids?

Oh, there were the usual events on the island: Four of Detroit’s mayoral contenders participated in a question fest that was more introduction to style than debate. State Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. did his best impression of the late Mayor Coleman A. Young. Former state Rep. Lisa Howze made sure people knew she was a certified public accountant. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. Unlike the commercials, nobody wanted to be like Mike (Duggan, the former Detroit Medical Center CEO).

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — the only Bush who should have run for president — was charming, engaged and astute on education and reinvention during interviews. But his lengthy speech on the main stage was more a geopolitical Republican National Committee keynote on immigration than a call to arms.

But when you set aside the usual things, what was left were: national education advocate Michelle Rhee calling for a focus on students; economists and foundation leaders calling for improved early education for children; the announcement of nearly $60 million raised for children — and a to-do list for leaders.

Yes, nerds are welcome here. Scholars, too. Because without teaching all children and growing our tax base and work force, there is no renaissance.

It’s education, stupid.

And the chamber got it right this time.

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