Panel led by GVSU head calls for free preschool, community college

LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Michigan should make community college free for all and give merit-based scholarships to high school graduates who attend the state’s public universities, according to a commission formed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan’s 21st Century Education Commission released a report Friday with 32 recommendations, including getting rid of grade levels and instead advancing students only once they master content.

The study also recommends universal access to preschool for all 4-year-olds — not just disadvantaged and poor ones — and state aid to help pay for school buildings in low-income districts and those used by publicly funded charter schools.

The need for improvement in education in the state is obvious. Michigan students rank 41st nationally in 4th grade reading and 37th in 8th grade math.

The commission found the best way to improve the system as a whole is by thinking bigger than just K-12.

“We need to ensure that every child in Michigan have access to high quality preschool programming. Income should not be a barrier nor a requirement to this critical developmental experience,” Ann Kalass, a member of the commission and the CEO of Starfish Family Services, said at a press conference in Detroit Friday morning.

Some of the recommendations, like getting rid of grade levels through competency-based learning, break from educational norms.

Snyder called it “out-of-the box,” but was excited about the idea.

“It’s not about simply spending time in a classroom and going through that process and then moving on. It’s really, ‘are you qualified in a subject matter?’” Snyder said at the press conference.

The group also took up the issue of school choice, and wrote that Michigan “must ensure access to high-quality educational options for all.” But commissioners were “unable to achieve consensus” on the policies needed to make that happen.

Grand Valley State University President Dr. Thomas Haas is the chairman of the commission. He made it clear that right now, the recommendations are only that – recommendations and that many of them require significant investments and policy changes. The commission will now have to work with state lawmakers to craft the needed legislation.

“We’re urging our state leaders to maintain the same focus as our commission at improving student outcomes,” Haas said Friday.

The panel also pushes for incentives to attract and retain qualified early childhood educators. Some options mentioned in the report include offering state-subsidized salary increases after educators complete professional development, tax credits for child care workers, scholarship opportunities and loan forgiveness.

Another key recommendation from the 25-member commission includes seeking a 2018 constitutional amendment to give the governor, whose K-12 powers are limited outside of funding decisions, more sway over education policy by having direct oversight of Michigan’s education department.