Whitmer’s population council shoots blanks

Growing Michigan Together report long on groupthink, short on ideas for growing state population

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s council on population growth just published its official report. I don’t recommend it for reading. It was stitched together by a 27-member committee representing interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians who were informed by other interest groups, bureaucrats and consultants. The resulting groupthink seems to have squeezed out all creative or useful ideas.

The report is 85 pages of cliched, jargon-laden claptrap. It is wordy and convoluted, a common problem that comes from trying to appease too many interests. It exaggerates to the extreme. Every problem is existential, and every proposed solution the most obvious and important policy in the world. The state is facing a “significant threat” and an “unfolding crisis.” “Doing nothing is not an option.” But not to worry: The council’s “transformational strategies” will make Michigan “a welcoming, cohesive, affordable, equitable, and attractive place” that “supports every child on their journey to reach their potential and achieve their dreams anywhere.”

It is often hard to comprehend. Here's a taste: “This recommendation … is designed to spur disciplined innovation to transform schools into research and development hubs for testing and refining new and more effective models for teaching and learning that will fit the needs of local communities while ensuring that every teacher, in every community, has access to a world-class lifelong learning experience and, ultimately, promotes stronger learning for all children.”

A narrative does eventually emerge. The problem is that Michigan is losing the population game, which “threatens our future.” The state ranks 49th out of 50 in population growth. As a result, Michigan needs a “new framework for a prosperous state.”

The first step is to stop the brain drain and outcompete other states for young, college-educated workers. Referencing Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, the report recommends Michigan become the “innovation hub of the Midwest” and “America’s Scale-Up State.”

Next, the state needs to improve public schools so they produce graduates with the knowledge and skills to contribute to this new innovation hub. The report does not say if this is how Silicon Valley and Austin grew rich, but it proposes a complete redesign of the state’s K-12 curriculum standards anyway.

These standards should give students “future-ready skills and competencies.” That way, students will be prepared for any job opportunity during their working careers. The report does not explain how to do this, perhaps because it would require accurately predicting the future. If education bureaucrats could predict what skills the economy will value in the decades to come, they’d be making it big on Wall Street right now, not sitting in a drab state office in Lansing.

The report’s marquee proposal is dubbed the Michigan Education Guarantee. The idea is that the state would guarantee that every student completes the future-ready standards. The main way of achieving this is to give schools an extra year’s worth of funding for students who couldn’t finish on time.

The report names plenty of other grandiose ideas but fails to provide details about the implementation. The state should create a “seamless system for lifelong learning” and “rethink school schedules.” It should develop “thriving, resilient communities.” It must “revitalize housing stock” and “future-proof our infrastructure.” You get the idea.

While these all sound great, there are countless decisions that must be made to achieve those goals. The report addresses hardly any of them. Recommended changes to the government status quo are watered down, so government departments are not required to do anything they would not agree to do themselves. For instance, to create lifelong learning, policymakers should “align priorities,” “bring … stakeholders together,” “study ways of coordinating policies,” “set attainment goals,” “strengthen capacity at all levels” and “study ways to … eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies.” In other words, keep doing a bunch of stuff that’s already being done and hope things improve.

There’s not much for policymakers in this report. It is simply not specific enough to be of value. To be fair, the council did have to produce a report in a short amount of time. But it opted to produce a report that makes sweeping and half-baked recommendations. The council should have narrowed its focus to a few evidence-based, practical policies that Michigan policymakers could consider.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.