Friday, June 27, 2008

Michigan's educational motto? Dumb it down

It wouldn't be a campaign stop without the requisite hard-luck story. And Stephanie Baker stepped up to the plate at Barack Obama's town hall meeting in Taylor last week.

She wanted to know what Obama would do to help her daughter maintain her financial aid even though her GPA had slipped.

What was his mealy-mouthed, bleeding-heart liberal response?

"There is no excuse. She's got to keep her grades up. She's got to work harder. I'm willing to bet she's probably watched some TV in the past couple of months, went to the movies, hung out with her girlfriends," the presumptive Democratic nominee said. "She's got to keep her grades up so she can keep her financial aid."

Amen to that.

Perhaps Stephanie's met Cindy Timmons, whose high school freshman son just flunked five classes. Cindy trekked down from Grayling to Lansing last week to plead with a House panel to spike tougher class requirements so her boy could graduate.

Nobody told her to hire a tutor. Nobody told her the cold, hard truth: That it really doesn't matter if her son drops out or graduates high school - he'll be looking at minimum-wage jobs and double-digit unemployment either way. Increasingly, the only road to a middle-class life is a college degree - or two or three.

Three years ago, a commission chaired by Lt. Gov. John Cherry issued a stellar report on the state of education in Michigan and what to do about it. Among the 19 recommendations was doubling the number of college graduates by 2015 and beefing up high school graduation requirements to prepare kids for the knowledge-based economy.

The world and its economy are changing. The Mitten State can change with it or our students can be left behind. I suggest that Stephanie and Cindy make the Cherry Commission report required reading for themselves and their children.

Fortunately for them, there are pandering politicians armed with quick fixes. God bless election years.

State Reps. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, and Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, are on mission to muck up Michigan's education system even more, as though slashing higher education spending for years hasn't done enough.

Their motto for the state? Dumb it down.

The GOP-led Legislature admirably passed in 2006 some of the toughest high school graduation requirements in the country, which included two years of foreign language, four of English and three of math. Kids who take high-level math in high school, for instance, are much more likely to go to college.

Sheltrown says it's time to give up already and hand out consolation prizes to the non-college bound, an easier "general diploma curriculum." That and a couple bucks will buy you a cup of coffee (though not at Starbuck's).

He amusingly passed out a pop quiz on Algebra II to lawmakers last week, which most flunked.

Well, duh. Anyone who watched the budget debacle last year knows that math ain't legislators' strong suit. Let's set the bar a little higher for our children, folks.

While Sheltrown tries to hobble our high schools, Jones wants to stunt our world-class universities, especially the University of Michigan.

Jones, best known for holding nonstop press conferences and proposing legislation to "save Christmas," tells his own sob story about a rural teacher whose students just can't get into the UM.

I knew that as a personal responsibility kind of guy and former sheriff, Jones would dole out the tough medicine. Kids need to study harder. Parents have to get more involved. The school needs to change its teaching requirements and curriculum pronto.

Nope. "That's not fair!" cries Jones, an alleged conservative, who should probably chat with Obama.

Under his legislation, public universities would be required to accept the top 10 percent of all Michigan high school classes. In other words: Let's reward mediocrity.

You've got to be kidding me. When our college graduation rate is an abysmal 25 percent and college remedial classes are already crammed, this is the last thing we need. Our 15 universities are some of the only bright spots in our state, clouded by 8.5 percent unemployment and a decaying auto industry.

Universities compete on a global scale. If we dilute the talent pool in Michigan schools, those in California, Texas and India will inevitably gain.

Weakening his case further, Jones rails about the U-M accepting so many Red Chinese instead of red-blooded Michiganders. He's teamed up with a self-described "disgruntled employee," UM Professor Bill Kauffman, who ventures into conspiracy-theory land about Chinese students stealing national security secrets, citing YouTube videos as evidence.

Let's face it: Some high schools are better than others and do a superior job of preparing students for college success. The beauty of the Michigan Merit Curriculum that Sheltrown is trying to dismantle is it attempts to hoist all schools to a high standard, which in turn, increases students' odds of being accepted to U-M and other colleges.

Look, there are no easy answers to Michigan's educational quandaries. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to get elected.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mighty Mac adrift in Michigan

Four years ago, a gaggle of grandmothers emerged from a University of Illinois building, breathlessly chirping about a U.S. Senate forum.

A cerise-scarfed lady spotted a placard for a hopeful and asked if he was The One.

"That's not our guy," she was told. "Our candidate is the one whose name no one can pronounce."

I recall glancing at her "Obama for Senate" button. Good luck, this hard-bitten political reporter thought before hurrying back to the library to finish researching an obscure local history project.

Five months later, I watched Barack Obama unfurl his fabled '04 Democratic National Convention speech in which he deftly defined the "hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

That was the first time I realized I'd underestimated Mr. Obama. Then came the Illinois senator's upset win in lily-white Iowa in January, 11 straight victories after Super Tuesday and knockout blow on the last primary night, June 3.

John McCain needs to learn that lesson - stat. The Vietnam POW clearly disdains Obama, a showboating whippersnapper out to steal his maverick mantle from under him. Pay your dues, kid, McCain practically seethes every time he spits out his name.

But there's another dynamic here - he clearly didn't want to face Obama. Lying below McCain's honey-coated praise for Hillary Clinton (and slams on the sexist press) was the stone-cold political calculation that she would shore up the right-wing base in a way he never could and be easier to vanquish.

Which is about right. Obama tops all the polls, even after Hillary bloodied him but good.

So one has to wonder if the Arizona senator was in denial about his inevitable opponent. Because what I want to know is: What was John McCain doing for the four months between when he clinched the GOP nomination and Obama sealed his?

And what's he doing now?

McCain had a tremendous advantage. And as far as I can see, he blew it - especially here in Michigan. It's a dream come true for a candidate to be able to define himself. To have the stage to yourself for months while your rival's teeth are being knocked in daily by a member of his own party is like a nonstop ecstasy trip for politicians.

Instead, McCain puttered around the county here and there and flipped burgers for Mitt Romney and other vice presidential wannabes in Sedona. His less than breakneck stump speed did little to evoke an image of gusto and vigor the 71-year-old needs to convey, especially to combat an oratorical Adonis who hasn't even broken a sweat after 18 straight months of barnstorming.

Since the Jan. 15 Michigan primary, McCain has done a couple of fundraisers and two events here, including a baffling May 7 speech on child pornography at Oakland University. On the list of top 1,000 issues for Michiganders, kiddie porn ranks about 1,263,000th.

The economy fills up slots one through 900 at least, as we've just hit 8.5 percent unemployment, a number we last saw when George W.'s daddy was in the Oval Office.

These are things the crackerjack Mitten State campaign team of Chuck Yob & Son should be telling McCain, but they're too busy hurling nukes at state GOP Chair Saul Anuzis to care. The Yob Doctrine dictates that it doesn't matter if you win or lose elections, but how many of your Republican brethren you can settle scores with by napalming them along the way.

McCain's campaign consists of two generic TV ads, as he seems utterly determined to lose Michigan at any cost. He won't even be back here until mid-July for yet another fundraiser.

In contrast, Obama, who completely ignored us for a year with our botched Democratic primary, has come back a-courtin' with a hundred red roses in hand on three different occasions in the last month.

"I'm so sorry, baby," the current Us Weekly cover boy croons to crowds, savvily hitting every sweet spot in the state from Troy to Grand Rapids. "I know the economy's been so bad. Let me make it up to you with John Edwards, Al Gore and $150 million in research pork."

As for the ground game, Obama is everywhere in the Great Lakes State, with 50 events last weekend from the U.P. to Downriver.

So there's little surprise that Mighty Mac sunk 8 points among independents in Rasmussen Michigan polls over the last month and he's trailing nationally, as well. He's flipped on offshore and arctic drilling and called last week's Supreme Court ruling upholding habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."

How this crass pandering is supposed to snare Democrats and independents is beyond me.

Perhaps the strategy is to wait for Obama's star to combust over the Rev. Wright or some other ghastly gaffe. Phenoms can't last forever, after all. Slow and steady experience wins the race.

Which was pretty much what Nixon said about Kennedy in '60. And we all know how that turned out.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A moratorium on MBT whining, please

Business owners need to sit down and shut up.

It's time for some tough love. We're all paying loads more for our salmonella-laced tomatoes, Ritalin and of course, gas. Our income and property taxes have gone up, as have local millages, and we pay scores of back-door taxes like higher tuition and activity fees at public schools.

Times are tough all over. But in the Legislature, you'd think it's only businesses suffering under the strain - and everything must be related to last year's evil tax increases. Evidently, they could never be impacted by the housing crisis, credit crunch or the fact that only eight years ago, gas used to be around $1 a gallon.

Most of us would kill for gas prices to inch up at the rate of our income taxes, by the way.

I would love to sit in session and listen to weeping for the homeless and the jobless by slack-jawed Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, R-Kalamazoo. But they don't have lobbyists, so tough.

Before you start scrawling your hate mail, let me make myself clear. I am not anti-business. I am anti-whining.

I don't believe in business taxes because businesses don't pay taxes; people do. I defer to eminent economists like Charles Ballard on that.

If we really wanted to fix our tax system so it brought in the money it was supposed to and was (gasp) fair, we'd adopt a graduated income tax while increasing exemptions and enact a modest across-the-board services tax.

Instead, we have the Michigan Business Tax and surcharge, on which senators have taken testimony across the state. Surprise! Only the disgruntled showed up as the Republicans expected, so they could issue the report they were ready to write all along: Dump the surcharge! And while we're at it, most of the MBT, because who needs a pesky $2 billion in the budget anyway?

It's time for a trip down memory lane.

Y'all wanted to dump the Single Business Tax, remember? The Legislature did your bidding. So when I hear those who lead the revolt like former Rep. Leon Drolet say the SBT was better and new taxes are just not faaaiiirr, forgive me for not sharing your crocodile tears.

The new MBT is a bit worse than the SBT and the surcharge is a disaster. But if your government has failed you, it's because your high-priced lobbyists have failed you. You could have ended up with slightly higher income taxes instead, but groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce screamed until the very end. So you got the reviled service tax, replaced by the nonsensical MBT surcharge.

I find it fascinating that when the service tax was passed, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce quickly shrieked it would cost businesses a whopping $900 million to comply. Conservatives like Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, were outraged.

When the tax died 19 hours after being on the books, Cassis promptly introduced legislation to pay businesses back for their trouble. Only this time, she and the chamber claimed the $900 million was a wee bit overblown and wouldn't blow a big hole in the budget.

Talk about some fuzzy math. Makes it a lot harder to work up the sympathy for businesses claiming their tax bills have shot up 900 percent, because who really knows for sure.

Now no one wants to go back and take more tax votes to fix this mess. So a few Republicans will dutifully try to hack away at the heinous MBT, knowing that doesn't have a chance in hell of becoming law. Nobody wants to slash billions from the budget; it's just that the GOP tries to score political points off the idea.

"We've gone from tax-and-spend Democrats to tax-cut-and-spend Republicans," grimaces GOP former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema.

Look, 40 percent of businesses didn't even pay the SBT, so naturally they'd lose by shifting to a tax paid by most. And while I don't doubt there are some businesses paying 900 percent more now (although I'm guessing all of my hate mailers will claim to), that's not the norm. Some businesses are doing quite well but are very quiet.

As Gov. Jennifer Granholm puts it: "They keep their head low and do the sign of the cross and say, 'Thank you very much.'''

It's mostly big manufacturers who will probably skedaddle to China in 10 years anyway. And no, that's not fair. But that's what happens when you buckle to interest groups and make tax policy on political grounds, instead of sound economics.

Life isn't fair. I would say it's not fair for people who put 35 years into a company to get axed so shareholders can make a bigger buck overseas, but such is life in the global economy.

Anyway, good luck getting your unemployment benefits extended. As any good conservative legislator will tell you, that would cost the budget too much money.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How Hillary failed feminism

For the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed to call myself a feminist.

I realized that as Hillary Clinton gave her narcissistic non-concession speech Tuesday, which should have marked the end of a historic campaign for women everywhere. But I want to send out my heartfelt thanks to her, Geraldine Ferraro, EMILY's List and New York NOW and Harriet Christian for doing what right-wing blowhards never could.

Lady Hillary sounded only slightly less sour and a smidge saner than dear Harriet, the Clinton supporter raving outside Saturday's Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting made instantly famous on YouTube.

"The Democrats are throwing the election away! And for what? An inadequate black male?" Christian cackled, adding on Fox News that "99 percent of blacks don't even know why they're voting for" Barack Obama.

That kind of racism, once jaw-dropping, is now par for the course for cutthroat Clintonistas.

Harriet was only one of a motley crew of bitter white women screaming that Obama was a "socialist" leading an "anti-woman cult." All the blind rage about "massive disenfranchisement" was over Clinton losing four whole delegates (two, since they were halved) from my state of Michigan.

I kid you not.

But it's easy to say sayonara to reality when your candidate has. Most days, Hillz lavishes more praise on John McCain that Obama, whom she again declared less qualified than herself after he clinched the nomination Tuesday. Not that she would gracefully concede, as she probably banished calculators, as well as TVs in the Baruch College bunker she holed herself up in.

How ironic is it for the wannabe feminist-in-chief to have adopted the persona of "Math is tough" Barbie?

Clinton seemed determined to string out her self-immolated campaign, make Obama sweat and ding him even more, until boatloads of her Capitol Hill colleagues told her to hit the road Wednesday. True to form, she was shocked, still expecting her loyal subjects to fuel a last-minute comeback, as is the Clinton birthright.

Hillary never could own up to her own failings in her campaign - the arrogance, absurdly bloated adviser salaries and lack of strategy after Super Tuesday. And she certainly could never acknowledge Baby Barack's strengths - superb organization, fundraising prowess and oratorical mastery.

No, it was sexism that got her in the end.

How is anyone buying this? Our heroine was the undisputed frontrunner as wife of a popular former two-term president who's run the party for 15 years, with a $109 million personal fortune to boot. The primary system was cannily crafted by cronies like the aptly monikered Harold Ickes to ensure a swift Clintonian coronation.

And when she started to lose, she viciously bludgeoned Obama, aided by surrogates like Gerry Ferraro whose race-baiting rhetoric resembled that of toothless Southern hicks in the Jim Crow era.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, Clinton's strategy came down to trying to nakedly engineer an Obama meltdown. She couldn't just pray for another Rev. Wright; she had to show all those "hardworking white Americans" the colossal error they were making to go with the Kenyan-Kansan (and mess with the queen).

So when she let fly her musing on Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, it was a telling glimpse into her Machiavellian psyche that seemed almost wistful, as though a bullet in Barack's brain was her only road to the White House.

It wasn't ideal, but she'd take it. Politics is a bloodsport, after all.

And somehow Obama, that "skinny black guy with big ears and a funny name," as he describes himself with the kind of self-deprecation Clinton is allergic to, defied all odds.

He went off script and beat her. Talk about historic.

As for Clinton, she mangled her moment in history. Feminism didn't fail her; she failed feminism.

The melodramatic hand-wringing ("Now we'll never have a woman president!") is ridiculous and an insult to talented female politicians across the country, many of whom pointedly backed Obama.

We will. It just won't be Hillary - not now.

Once upon a time, I counted Hillary Rodham Clinton a role model as a champion high school debater mulling law school. Having a first lady with a career was about three decades behind, I thought, never figuring out why she dropped the idea as quickly as her maiden name. In the end, I decided I hated money, hence my esteemed career as a writer.

And while I owe generations of women who came before me a debt of gratitude, I am profoundly tired of the identity politics wars that have decimated the left for a half-century. I am sophisticated enough to know the narrative of history is not gender (nor race); it is multifaceted and broad, terrible and triumphant.

If you don't get that, you don't get anything.

So when Clinton lauded herself Tuesday for launching a campaign that inspired parents to tell their daughters, "See, you can be anything you want to be," I tittered at her trademark vanity at first.

But she's right. May they grow up to be far more honorable leaders than she.