JACK SPENCER: Education is for the student, not the state
Picture in your mind a view from a helicopter flying over a portion of Michigan. It's wintertime; so beneath us we see patches of snow interrupted by blotches of dull-colored grasses and tawny underbrush.
At other times of the year leafy trees would dominate the scene, but not in winter. Instead, from our bird's eye view, clusters of bare trunks, limbs and branches appear as dashes of gray tint and black shadow upon the terrain below.
We hear the loud engine of our helicopter roaring and often notice its shadow float across the ground as passing reflections would on the surface of a lake or pond. In the distance the trees are merged and blurred, forming the vague background border of our search area.
Sound familiar? It's a description of the thousands of nature documentaries that have appeared on television for decades. We're out in the helicopter, hoping to spot a particular species that is rumored to congregate in Michigan's hinterland.
Oh boy, someone has spotted them. It is a herd of recent college graduates. Having, so far failed to secure decent jobs within the vicinity, they have gathered and are wandering aimlessly. They're highly educated but somehow too dumb to relocate where good jobs can be found.
The intrepid hunters in the helicopter are beside themselves with glee. It's a moment for high-fives all around. Now, the business interest that hired the hunters will know where to locate. By late spring, the property will have been purchased. Bulldozers and construction teams will have arrived by August. Now that the prospective business knows where the graduates roam, it's all going to be easy.
Isn't it great? Yeah, sure.
This bit of ridiculous staging is meant to draw attention to how loony it is to promote education as a economic development tool. Hyperbole based on this premise has been droning on for years. But it's nothing more than a fantasy designed to promote a political agenda by twisting cause and effect into knots.
In virtually every state of the union the “education as an economic development tool” theory is being pushed. Apparently the states are all supposed to battle to out-produce each other in the production of skilled workforces. Then, supposedly, those that were most successful will reap harvests of new businesses along with the investments and jobs they bring.
Of course, education spending increasing state by state would be just a minor side effect. How dare anyone suggest that the increased spending, in and of itself, was the real motivation behind the theory.
In reality, the whole idea is upset down and backwards at multiple levels. First, let's consider what education should really be all about. Accumulating illusionary pools of skilled workers has nothing to do with education's core function. We owe our children the best educations possible for their sakes – period.
When someone earns a degree in Michigan and hops on a plane for somewhere else where a job awaits them, it is not the story of failure. If the graduate likes the job and becomes a productive citizen, it's a success story.The purpose of their education was not to facilitate Michigan's economy, it was to help them fulfill and their own dreams and aspirations.
Advancing the “education as an economic development tool,” premise in Michigan is particularly tiresome. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has the falsehood of this premise been more clearly demonstrated than is has right here.
For decades Michigan's auto industry was a magnet for skilled workers. Engineers, draftsmen, retooling experts – you name it, flocked to Michigan because this is where they could be rewarded for their skills.
This all changed, however, when significant portions of the auto industry started locating elsewhere. If businesses move to where the skilled workers are, rather than the other way around, why did Michigan struggle through a one-state recession for much of the past decade? The problem didn't start with a depletion of skilled workers – it began with their jobs leaving the state.
What actually happened is that, after the state's economy went on the rocks, areas where universities (especially research universities) were located were comparatively better off. That's because the types of jobs that universities attract are more recession-proof.
Add to this the fact that so-called high-tech companies like to locate near universities. Of course, most of these companies are subsidized by government and virtually joined at the hip with academia to begin with. This has always been the case, but when most of the state's economy was belly up, the dynamic made places such as East Lansing and Ann Arbor look great by comparison. These university cities were like isolated islands where unemployment was lower and (at least some) business growth was being experienced.
Politicians began saying the potential job providers they'd talked with cared little about things like labor costs, and more about a skilled workforce. Well, yeah – these university-oriented potential job providers were just about the only ones still showing any interest in Michigan. The others had already crossed Michigan off their lists.
The simple truth is that many advocates and politicians define their jobs as getting as much money as possible directed toward education. However, they can't justify this by claiming the more that's spent on education, the better the result. This avenue was closed to them years ago by the overwhelming weight of facts.
So, they came up with this “education as an economic development tool” idea. It's just a distraction. However, it includes enough misapplied examples to be impressive at a glance.
Yet, it is actually based on using the local economies of university towns like East Lansing and Ann Arbor, as models for the entire state. Is this feasible? Of course not.
If it was feasible all we'd need to do is create more and more universities, then sit back and enjoy the results. But common sense tells us that's not what would happen. In something less than two minutes, this method would run smack-dab into the law of diminishing returns.
It would be like observing that Michigan's top tourist attractions are Frankenmuth and Mackinac Island and then setting out to duplicate them. Would it really increase tourism in Michigan if several more small towns adopted Bavarian themes and hotels were placed on five or six other Great Lakes islands?
One could only wish that boosting a state's economy was that easy.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.