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How About a Peoples' Policy Conference?

So the future-policy-for-Michigan confab at Mackinac Island has wound down. The media's preferred word to describe the 2013 Mackinac Policy Conference seems to be "confab," so I'm going to go with that. Consider this: "confab" is short for "confabulation" which has two basic meanings: "an informal, private conversation" and "filling in mental gaps with fabrications one believes are facts."

So--confab is exactly right.

The usual confabulatory suspects were present and speaking, around this year's theme: How can we fix our utterly failed public education system which is not producing revenue for entrepreneurs?* The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce chose K-12 Inc. Jeb for their keynote. Naturally, Michelle Rhee made an appearance. And the crowd went wild.

The Detroit Chamber has been sponsoring the conference for thirty-plus years, whisking politicians, journalists and gadflies on both sides of the aisle to a midweek, perk-fueled talk-fest that's supposed to generate new solutions for life's persistent questions--or at least, big issues in Michigan. Evidently, this requires lots of open bars, rhetorical fabrications and a setting to die for.

Everyone who lives in Michigan has been to Mackinac Island. It's flat-out gorgeous and a trip back in time, where the ever-present aroma of horse manure reminds you of life in a simpler era. If, that is, folks in that simpler era were employed as minimum-wage fudge-makers, hotel maids and T-shirt sellers. The Grand Hotel, ground zero for the conference, charges non-guests $10 just to walk on their porch--the world's longest--and see their (admittedly fabulous) rocking chairs and geraniums. The governor has a 7000 square foot/eight bathroom summer residence (owned by the state) on Mackinac Island. The gap between the haves and have-nots could not be more obvious, but everyone (me included) loves the rich history and natural splendor of the island.

It's also hard to access--the nearest airports are dinky and very expensive, and everyone has to take a ferry to the island. It's a remote getaway spot, ideal for destination weddings and private, limited-to-bigwigs policy conversations. The media provides blanket coverage, and the most recognizable names get a lilac-scented bully pulpit and lots of microphones in their faces. The conference is widely known as a staging ground for high-profile political campaigns.

It's hard to say who actually benefits from this annual confab, besides the tourism industry and wannabe mayors and "thought leaders." The question of whether the conference has ever produced substantive positive change was raised more often when the previous governor, Jennifer Granholm, was in office. The media narrative then was "eek! things are getting worse" and Granholm herself was prone to sharing depressing facts about Michigan's industrial economy and employment woes, with accompanying task lists of unpleasant policy tweaks that needed to happen in order to jumpstart an aging economic infrastructure.

But it's morning in America--or at least on Mackinac Island--and the narrative has shifted to "entrepreneurs can fix our state." Once we get rid of the 50+ public school districts that aren't performing well enough to adequately train service workers of course. The media loves a positive story--they have had enough gloom.

Before cynicism completely overwhelms this blog, let me offer a thought experiment:

Suppose that next year's Mackinac Policy Conference was limited to actual elected policymakers and several hundred teachers, principals, parents and small business owners from communities across Michigan. Mandatory: several dozen educators from Detroit Public Schools, plus other districts working under the Education Achievement Authority, or so financially stressed that they've been compelled to close their own high schools.

Conference Title: Making Useful Education Policy or The Rising Tide That Actually Lifts All Boats.

Keynotes would come from outstanding teachers, school leaders and others with deep knowledge of education policy and practice. Policymakers could explain, for example, their decision to make Michigan a right-to-work state for educators, while preserving collective bargaining for police and firefighters. School leaders could share their practice-based decision-making in successful public schools.

Informal sessions would be scheduled on a ed-camp/unconference model. Media would be instructed to cover the most heavily attended sessions and report on ideas generated by people who are actually doing the work of educating kids in Michigan. Sample topics: How much will it really cost to implement Common Core Standards in Michigan? What are the best ways to integrate investment in teaching with teacher evaluation? What unsung, even unnoticed innovations are already happening in your school?

The Chamber of Commerce would fund all the teachers, school leaders and parents who attended, using savings from not paying expensive keynotes and flights into Pellston. There would be no sponsored open bars. Instead, conference attendees would be given free passes and an afternoon to explore Mackinac historic and natural sites, with a complimentary bag full of materials to take back to their schools and students. Every attendee would agree to write op-eds, meet with local Chambers regularly, and host local forums on public education.

What do you think? Just for one year...

* Actual theme: Education. 21st Century Global Markets. Cultural Change.

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