Lansing Politicians Betray Their Stated Ideals

Watch what they do, not what they say

It’s well known that talk comes cheap to politicians the world over. In Lansing, even legislators’ written and published ideals are tossed aside for Michigan’s richest men — billionaire Dan Gilbert as one example — or some multinational corporation — like Foxconn of Taiwan as another. Lansing politicians still make sure the superrich get to play by different rules than everyone else.

This spring and summer, lawmakers in Lansing passed two pieces of corporate handout legislation. The proposals were euphemistically known as “MI-Thrive” (or “Gilbert” legislation after its biggest champion and purported beneficiary) and “Good Jobs for Michigan.” This latter program is modeled in part after the old, failed Michigan Economic Growth Authority program. We call it “New MEGA” for its similarities.

Both laws permit large developers or corporations to keep tax dollars that would otherwise flow to the state for public services. These “capture” programs are explicit subsidies to big business — acts of corporate favoritism — and ones chosen by appointees of Lansing’s political class.

In early 2017, and with great fanfare, Republicans in the state Legislature announced their 2017-2018 action plan titled, “The Best Way Forward: Common-Sense Leadership for the People of Michigan.” In it, they wrote:

To provide people with more opportunities, we will support a broad-based economic environment that is friendly to job creation and business growth, no matter the size of the business. We are also going to protect the taxpayers’ investment by making sure the funds used by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation are transparent to the public, directed toward long-term viability, help small businesses and are not wasted on picking winners and losers. [Emphasis added.]

Despite the pledge not to favor large businesses, the majority of Republicans voted to pass the first of two pieces of legislation in May, which was very clearly designed to subsidize big businesses. The Gilbert legislation gives out subsidies for projects with a minimum investment of $500 million in cities with a population over 600,000 (in other words, Detroit). The legislation also permits subsidies for smaller, but still heady, investments.

Despite the pledge not to pick winners and losers, another bad idea, the New MEGA legislation, was adopted in July. It was sold in part as a tool to win new manufacturing plants, specifically from the multinational corporation Foxconn. Indeed, the prospect of landing this plant was used as a cudgel to scare up votes. Lansing politicians went so far as to amend the New MEGA proposal to sweeten the potential rewards for a company that creates 3,000 jobs in the state, clearly aimed at Foxconn.

Despite what their manifesto said, it is clear that size does matter to Republicans. There is nothing small business-like about these bills, nor do they refrain from wasting money trying to ferret out economic winners from losers. The legislation itself is explicit about who is favored and who is not. The Gilbert bill is developer-specific and the second one prohibits certain industries from participating in the program. It also sets up Lansing bureaucrats to pick certain projects over others within favored industries.

What makes these giveaways all the more offensive is that they were both passed after Republicans failed to secure a personal income tax for everyone. Eleven of the 12 Republicans who voted against a tiny tax cut for everyone voted in favor of subsidies for billionaire Dan Gilbert and few other developers. So much for support of “a broad-based economic environment,” to quote the Republican action plan.

The primary Gilbert-friendly legislation (SB 111) passed the Senate with 21 yes and only six no votes from Republicans. On the House side, it garnered 44 yes and 19 no votes from the same party. The New MEGA law was adopted with 22 Republicans yes votes in the Senate and 40 voted in favor in the House.

Democrats are no better. Like the Republican action plan, their official statements swear off special favors for business. Their official platform reads:

We support the adoption of a tax structure that is fair to everyone… With billions in corporate welfare, subsidies, tax shelters and tax cuts, large corporations and the wealthiest individuals pay less than their fair share of the tax burden … Our tax system should be one where the burdens are shared proportionately and benefits everyone, not just those at the top. [Emphasis added.]

Despite written hostility to corporate handouts and concern about the “wealthiest individuals” paying less than their fair share, Democrats overwhelmingly supported each piece of legislation.

No Democrat in the Michigan Senate voted against the Gilbert bill. Only three did so in the House. Not a single Democrat voted against the New MEGA legislation in the Senate and only 13 voted against it in the House.

Despite their written claims suggesting otherwise, Lansing politicians have overwhelmingly shown they support corporate handouts. This is simply disrespectful to the vast majority of workers who have taken them at their words — but end up paying more taxes so a wealthy few can pay less.

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Oklahoman on August 25, 2017.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared the state's new $1.50-per-pack fee on cigarettes to be unconstitutional. This means a special session could be in the offing to pass a new cigarette tax of equal measure. Any debate must consider whether the attendant lawlessness the higher tax would inspire — including widespread smuggling — would undermine its health goals.

Tobacco smuggling is common. It comes in two forms: casual and commercial. A casual smuggler is basically just a working stiff looking to save a buck buying lower-cost cigarettes in a different tax jurisdiction. Commercial smuggling typically involves large, long-haul shipments.

Through 2015, Oklahoma's total smuggling rate was a tiny 2.3 percent, compared with nearly 57 percent in New York. That will change dramatically if Oklahoma raises its cigarette taxes by 145 percent, to $2.53 per pack. According to my statistical model, a “what if” scenario involving $1.50 tax hike would cause Oklahoma's smuggling rate to leap to more than 20 percent of total in-state cigarette consumption. Roughly 80 percent of this would be commercial smuggling.

Why? A $1.50 tax increase would make Oklahoma smokes more expensive than in each of her five bordering states. Sooners might soon prefer buying smokes next door. Even if they don't shop elsewhere, there will be a ready supply of out-of-state cigarettes provided by organized crime because the illicit trade in smokes can be profoundly profitable.

Illicit smokes from Virginia have been found as far away as California. One shipment of illegal cigarettes confiscated in a New Jersey port, and also bound for California, originated in China.

Even successful NASCAR driver Derek White got busted for his part in a long-distance smuggling ring between North Carolina and Canada. There aren't enough “Buford T. Justice” types in all of Oklahoma to stop truckloads of bootlegged smokes from rolling in if the state raises cigarette taxes to $2.53 per pack.

Smuggling undermines the good intentions of tax hike backers. One popular study by economist Mark Stehr from 2005 estimates that as much as 85 percent of the decline in legal sales after new taxes are introduced happens because smokers are simply avoiding or evading those taxes. In other words, they're not quitting smoking.

In the face of higher prices, people have turned to rolling their own smokes using pipe tobacco. They may omit filters to get more bang for their tobacco buck, ingesting more dangerous substances in the process. This has a parallel with the era of alcohol prohibition, when it was more profitable to sell and consume hard liquor than, say, beer.

In the forthcoming book “For Your Own Good” from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I author a chapter describing the many parallels between alcohol prohibition and price prohibition today with cigarettes. Cigarettes remain legal products, but because of the artificial, tax-induced price, they are prone to some unsavory characteristics of the prohibition era.

These include violence against people, police and property, brazen thefts and hijackings, public corruption, bathtub gin (today's counterfeit smokes) and the “loosies” of their day, the single whiskey shot.

Policy changes don't occur in a vacuum. Raising the state excise tax 145 percent will encourage lawlessness and hurt the very people policymakers are trying to help.

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August 18, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report

The Legislature continues a summer break with no sessions scheduled until Sept. 6. The House and Senate convened pro-forma sessions one day this week in which no business or roll calls took place. So rather than votes this report contains some interesting or noteworthy bills introduced during the first half of the year.

Senate Bill 400: Increase tax imposed to pay for 9-1-1 phone services

Introduced by Sen. Rick Jones (R), to increase cell phone taxes imposed to pay for local 9-1-1 emergency phone service. The 911 tax on cell phone contracts would rise from 1.92 percent to 4.19 percent. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

Senate Bill 416: Allow adoption of dog-fight dogs

Introduced by Sen. Tory Rocca (R), to revise a law that bans breeding, buying or selling an animal that has been trained or used for fighting, or its offspring. The bill would allow these animals to be adopted if a shelter or agency responsible for one judges that it does not pose a threat to public safety. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

Senate Bill 422: Give “land banks” a social welfare mission

Introduced by Sen. Ian Conyers (D), to expand the mission of government “land banks” to also include making homes available for disabled veterans. These government authorities were created as a management and efficiency tool intended to consolidate, market and get back onto the tax rolls property that has been abandoned and/or tax-foreclosed, primarily in declining cities. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

Senate Bill 439: Expand wine and grape council mission

Introduced by Sen. Goeff Hansen (R), to add a member who represents micro-brewer interests to a government grape and wine industry council. Also, to expand this entity's mission to include providing the same kind of indirect subsidies to brewery interests that it provides to wine making interests. In 2014 this operation reportedly received $927,898 from liquor license fees (taxes) and spent $797,000 on things intended to benefit the industry, plus $373,000 on staff compensation. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

House Bill 4588: Facilitate incapacitated adult financial exploitation reporting

Introduced by Rep. Winnie Brinks (D), to permit investment advisers and other financial institutions to give law enforcement and other relevant agencies access to the records of an incapacitated or vulnerable adult who may be the victim of financial exploitation. State officials would be required to develop training resources to assist the industry in this. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

House Bill 4594: Exempt schools from union "prevailing wage" mandate

Introduced by Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R), to exempt public school, community college and state university construction or repair projects from the state "prevailing wage" law, which prohibits awarding contracts to firms that submit the lowest bid unless the contractor pays wages based on reported union pay scales in a region. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

House Bill 4596: Eliminate requirement for government union to represent everyone in workplace

Introduced by Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R), to no longer require government employee unions to be the “exclusive bargaining agent” for every employee in a unionized government or public school workplace. In other words, individual employees could choose to negotiate their own salary and terms of employment with public employers. This would not apply to police and fire unions however, which are excluded from Michigan’s right to work law. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

House Bill 4598: Freeze enrollment in Obamacare Medicaid expansion

Introduced by Rep. Gary Glenn (R), to freeze enrollment in the state Medicaid expansion authorized by the 2010 federal health care law and a 2013 Michigan law. These laws entitle able-bodied childless adults below a certain income level to enroll in what is essentially HMO-like coverage at taxpayer expense. The bill would allow current beneficiaries to remain but allow no new enrollments (or re-enrollments if someone drops out). Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

House Bill 4600: Mandate multilingual state websites

Introduced by Rep. Tom Cochran (D), to require state agencies to post a translation of their homepage for any language that is spoken by at least 2.5 percent of the state population. Referred to committee, no further action at this time.

SOURCE:, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit

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Home Health Caregivers Might Find Relief from Union Coercion at Supreme Court

Mackinac Center joins groups to call an end to the union dues skim

Photo via Flickr

In Michigan, the dues skim against home-based day care providers like Mackinac Center Legal Foundation clients Sherry Loar, Michelle Berry and Paulette Silverson ended in 2011. A similar skim against home health caregivers like Foundation clients Patricia and Robert Haynes ended in 2013 but only after surviving a 2012 attempt by the Service Employee International Union to constitutionalize the skim.

What definitively ended the skim was the passage of MCL 423.210(e)(i) in 2012, which amended Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act to clarify that neither home-based day care providers nor home health caregivers were “public employees” permitted to engage in mandatory collective bargaining.

Nationally, in 2014, the United States Supreme Court looked at in-home caregivers and held in Harris v. Quinn that as a matter of constitutional law, they could not be charged agency fees by their union. It was hoped that this case would end dues skims nationally. It has not. Instead, lower courts have held that though unions cannot charge home-based day care workers and home health care givers agency fees, they can force them to be members. This despite the dubious nature that those individuals are public sector workers. Thus, where these unions exist, only those “public employees” who can figure out the resignation process can escape paying union dues. Attempts to decertify these unions have proven difficult not due to the workers fidelity to the union, but because the process of identifying the geographically scattered “public employees” and gathering a significant number of signatures from them is a very difficult task. That task was made more difficult in at one state by a successful union-sponsored ballot initiative that the employees cannot be identified through FIOA laws.

To help end the dues skim nationally, the Mackinac Center and National Federation of Independent Business have signed on to an amicus brief authored by the Cato Institute in the case Hill v. SEIU. The plaintiff in is being represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and contends that Constitution forbids the act of forcing home health caregivers into a public sector bargaining unit. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case and rules in the plaintiff’s favor, then dues skims will end nationally.

On August 4, 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a response to the writ of certiorari thereby indicating that that the case is of some interest to it.

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Lansing Politicians Put Favored Businesses Ahead of Everyone Else

Another $1.2B in favors approved this year

State lawmakers passed two programs this year to give the businesses they select taxpayer dollars. It’s the kind of policy that tells regular people that they don’t matter while the important people get to play by their own rules.

Our laws are supposed to set the guidelines for everyone to follow. These programs, by contrast, give the favored few an advantage. This is disrespectful to the people that have to pay for those favors.

Some policymakers think the state needs to award business subsidies because other states offer subsidies. They are under the mistaken assumption that these programs work. The favors they bestow cost real money and have economic effects as well. At best, such programs don’t create jobs; they transfer them and hurt everyone else in the process.

It’s not just the expense that matters. Favoring one business with taxpayer dollars means that they get advantages over other businesses competing in the same market.

To Lansing politicians, these new favors are small. The selected business owners get to keep some or all of the income and sales taxes generated at their businesses and developments. And, the politicians argue, this is costless to taxpayers because these expansions wouldn’t happen without taxpayer dollars in the first place.

But that kind of thinking breaks down when the idea is applied universally. Offering everyone else the same deal would bankrupt the state. When everyone lives or works in a place in which the builder gets income and sales tax revenue, the income or sales tax revenue is only collected by developers.

This transfer from everyone to a favored few ought to frustrate more than just budget analysts. The teachers being asked for salary concessions and the firefighters having their shifts limited should be as mad about this as any taxpayer who must pay for these programs.

These giveaways rob local governments of tax revenue. And while local governments face other fiscal issues, the problems posed by these new laws shouldn’t be written off, either. The two new programs approved this year give away another $1.2 billion in addition to the $7.6 billion in already-approved business subsidies. And that is in addition to the $171 million in new subsidies approved by lawmakers in the state budget. If political leaders stop wasting money on these programs, they can go a long way to addressing other fiscal issues, whether it’s letting taxpayers keep more of their own money or rebuilding roads.

Getting rid of the giveaways that are ineffective and unfair to residents and businesses alike would go a long way to making us a state where people are put ahead of the business of awarding favors.

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Let Local Schools Decide Their Calendars

More districts seeking freedom from Labor Day mandate

An increasing number of school districts want to open their doors to students in August. This growing demand provides further justification for ending the requirement that districts ask state bureaucrats for permission to start the academic year before Labor Day.

The Detroit News reported that the number of local school districts, intermediate school districts and charter schools seeking calendar waivers from the Michigan Department of Education nearly doubled – from 67 in 2016 to 123 this year. The number of districts affected could be much higher since the 24 waivers obtained by intermediate school districts are available to all the districts within their boundaries.

The state law setting Labor Day as the default school start date was only adopted in 2006. Recently, there’s momentum to roll back the mandate.

There is some evidence that making summer breaks shorter prevents disadvantaged students from falling further behind their peers. But overall, as with many education policy proposals, the research is inconclusive. A year-round calendar may help some students learn more, but it hasn’t shown signs of causing harm.

Unless you count the state’s tourism industry, which says the 11-year-old law has boosted hotel occupancy and revenues. Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association president and CEO Deanna Richeson was quoted in The Detroit News saying parents want to make vacation getaways during July and August. If so, they can persuade their local board of education to start school after Labor Day. Or they could seek to enroll in a neighboring district with a different calendar, or simply adjust their vacation plans.

There is no perfect solution to satisfy everyone, but educational concerns should take precedence over one industry’s concerns. And those decisions are best made closest to the families being served.

Most financial support for Michigan public schools comes from tax dollars collected and doled out at the state level, so state officials have some valid interest in setting education policies. But there is no compelling case that starting school after Labor Day generally benefits students, and some reason to believe otherwise.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, has introduced Senate Bill 271 to ease Lansing’s pressure on school districts seeking more calendar flexibility. His bill would allow all schools to operate on Tuesdays through Thursdays in August, which would preserve long weekends for family outings up north while, at least in some cases, alleviating concerns about summer learning loss. SB 271 passed out of committee more than four months ago, and it has been awaiting action on the Senate floor ever since.

It’s telling that making such a modest proposed change to rigid education industry norms has proved to be a slow and challenging task. What, then, will it take to create an education system nimble enough to offer students statewide true personalized learning?

Let locally accountable boards decide on the schedules that work for their parents and educators. Together, maybe their diverse calendar decisions will lengthen the season for Michigan residents to enjoy our state’s natural beauty.

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State of Michigan’s Great Lakes Invasive Carp Challenge

Crowdsourcing the state’s carp strategy

Photo via Flickr

On Aug. 1, the state of Michigan posted its Great Lakes Invasive Carp challenge on the website. The announcement began:

The State of Michigan has appropriated 1 million dollars for a Challenge seeking to prevent the movement of invasive carp species into Lake Michigan from the Illinois River through the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS). The Seeker is looking for new and novel ideas to function independently or in conjunction with those deterrents already in place to prevent carp movement into the Great Lakes or other locations.

Reading through the challenge can be initially unsettling for two distinct reasons.

First, the threat of Asian carp becoming established in the Great Lakes should bother all of us. Two of the species grouped under the umbrella of “Asian carp” – bighead and silver carp – can grow up to 100 pounds and four feet long, and can eat as much as 40 percent of their body weight each day. Both species are so effectively intrusive that researchers compare them to cancer cells. When introduced into a lake or river system, their populations can grow so rapidly that they take up most of the available nutrients and space. Eventually, they push the native fish species out. Missouri’s Department of Conservation estimates that these carp species make up 95 percent of the biomass in some Missouri rivers.

If Asian carp become established in the Great Lakes, they could decimate Michigan’s fisheries and would have a significant negative impact on Michigan’s $2.43 billion fishing industry.

Second, the announcement suggests government may not be up to the task of stopping invasive species. While the Department of Natural Resources does have an invasive species plan, it doesn’t appear to provide an answer to the problem. That can be unsettling for those who believe that government should have answers to difficult management questions.

The economist Friedrich Hayek provides a word of caution and hope here. In his 1945 paper, The Use of Knowledge in Society, Hayek provides an interesting look at the idea that government can always have answers to important questions.

Knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. … The ‘data’ from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society ‘given’ to a single mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given.

He was saying that one person or group can’t possibly be the source of all wisdom on a given topic. And although we must admit that the knowledge dispersed throughout our population may not have the answer to the invasive species challenge, when pulled together in a coherent form, it is far more likely to contain an answer.

Faced with the reality that they have a legal and financial responsibility to tackle the issue, but have not yet solved it, DNR officials have reached out for help. They should be applauded for their willingness to crowdsource novel ideas for this challenge. Applying an economic incentive – in the form of a financial reward – may also help to encourage creative responses.

Using incentives to gather dispersed knowledge on an important issue is a far superior option to hunkering down and relying on a single entity – in this case the DNR – to possess all knowledge on invasive species. This $1 million expense appears imminently reasonable when weighed against the potential losses to Michigan’s fisheries if Asian carp do become established in the Great Lakes.

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Unions Try to Kill a Private Trade School

But Greater Michigan Construction Academy is a success

Greater Midland Construction Academy students in class.

Michigan high school students can spend part of their day in work training programs, often earning credits from community colleges. This is a win for schools — who may not have the resources to offer these opportunities — and a win for students — who get trained in a skill they enjoy and earn college credit at no cost to themselves.

When it comes to trades programs – typically, construction, welding and mechanics, among others – there are a variety of options. Students can go to local community colleges or district or county co-ops. In Mid-Michigan, many attend the Greater Michigan Construction Academy.

But the academy is a private program, run by the Associated Builders and Contractors. ABC routinely butts heads with construction unions. According to The Detroit News, the liberal interest group Progress Michigan helped launch an investigation into the academy for being an inappropriate work training program for public school students. From a News article:

But department staff met Tuesday and concluded “no evidence of fraud existed and therefore no district penalties will result,” spokesman Martin Ackley said. “From this point, [the Michigan Department of Education] will provide technical assistance to districts prior to the start of the school year on how to more accurately report and claim students utilizing these work-based programs moving forward.”

When asked if public funds were spent on a private program not approved by the state, Ackley said districts “often purchase private-owned curriculum programs.”

This issue has developed into a clear political fight, which is unfortunate because the focus should be about what is best for students. It’s clear that the construction academy is successful at what it aims to do.

Over the past three years, according to results provided by the academy, 77 percent of its students in the trades programs were successful. Out of 35 graduates of the program, 19 are employed in trades and eight are in four-year college (mostly in construction-related fields).

If districts could no longer contract with the academy, more students would have to rely on community colleges for this work training. In 2015, the most recent year data is available, community colleges in Michigan had a success rate of only 22 percent (a “success” is a student either obtaining an associate degree or leaving to attend a four-year college). Even after five years, fewer than 40 percent of community college students are successful.

“I was invited by Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris and his government affairs team to sit on the Workforce Development Initiative that was convened by President Donald Trump as a result of the success of this program as a means to getting our young people access and opportunity into the skilled trades,” said Jimmy Greene, president of the academy.

It’s understandable that construction unions would want to hamper their competition. Their main policy fight with ABC is over the state’s prevailing wage law, which mandates union wages on construction jobs. But taxpayers should care about the results of programs, not who delivers them them.

(Jarrett Skorup sits on the policy committee of the Associated Builders and Contractors Greater Michigan Chapter.)

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How Michigan Could Benefit from District Voting

Joe Lehman discusses concept on MIRS podcast

Click for audio

What if lawmakers didn't have to travel to Lansing at all? What if they could just vote from home? That's the type of transformational change Mackinac Center CEO Joe Lehman suggested in an interview on the MIRS podcast on Monday, August 7, 2017.

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Measuring Success in Alternative Education

Programs serving dropout risks need meaningful metrics, too

In a vacuum of legislative leadership, the Michigan Department of Education is struggling to rate and report school quality in a meaningful and useful way. The challenge to getting good information is acutely felt by parents in Detroit, a city marked by poverty and institutional failure.

The proposed new method for measuring school performance improves upon the old Top to Bottom Rankings. But an important question has been mostly ignored in all the recent discussions about accountability: How do we judge the quality of schools specifically focused on rescuing troubled youth and giving them a second chance?

The latest version of Michigan’s federal school accountability plan indicates the state “has committed to developing a new, voluntary, parallel system of accountability for alternative education programs based on an application and relevant school demographics.”

Two prominent examples of alternative education programs that have seen success are Lighthouse Academy and Muskegon Covenant Academy. Based in Grand Rapids, Lighthouse is focused on educating young people who have been suspended or expelled, or just need extra help with a special education learning plan.

Amiah represents an amazing success story. She comes from a broken home and a rough, tragic and transient childhood, ultimately getting kicked out of her public school for fighting. When her situation looked darkest, she found help and support at Lighthouse Academy — including through the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates program.

Lighthouse Academy, which is authorized by Ferris State University, also stepped in to provide schooling to abused, neglected and delinquent youth at northern Michigan’s nonprofit Eagle Village in 2016. Eagle Village ended its computer-based learning program through the local intermediate school district and partnered with Lighthouse to deliver more traditional classroom instruction. All signs point toward a much better learning experience for Eagle Village’s highly mobile residents.

“The results of this past school year make it very clear to us that we made the right decision,” says Cathey Prudhomme, president and CEO of Eagle Village. “We have seen improvements in our kids, the quality of their education is better, and we had two residents graduate high school. Also important, our kids actually prefer this way of doing school. They like being able to switch classes, have variety in their day, get up and move, and have some interaction with people. This is a much better solution for all of the kids we work with.”

Farther west, Muskegon Covenant Academy works with students who have dropped out, live on the streets or had encounters with the juvenile justice system. Through its close partnership with the Covenant Academies Foundation, the school provides a year-round caring, constructive environment and services tailored to their students’ unique challenges. The school uses a “blended learning” instructional model that enables students to work at their own pace, one course at a time, as they try to catch up on their studies.

Muskegon Covenant is the fruit of visionary founder Sam Joseph. Concerned for the plight of young people who had fallen through the cracks of the traditional district system, he launched alternative programs in Detroit and Grand Rapids before venturing into Muskegon. In January another Covenant Academy opened in Kalamazoo. Another is slated to launch next year in Saginaw.

Michigan’s current accountability framework gave both Lighthouse and Muskegon Covenant academies the lowest possible ratings in 2015-16 because students didn’t meet the state testing benchmarks for general education programs. But most of the youths enrolled at these charter schools, not to mention the dozens of other alternative programs run by conventional districts, start out far behind and face uncommon struggles.

It’s not so easy to develop an accountability framework that is appropriately fair to the distinct challenges alternative programs face, while also recognizing those that truly give their students a promising second chance. But what is clear is that different metrics are needed to capture evidence of academic achievement and growth in alternative programs, as well as measure how well they prepare Amiah and students like her to become productive citizens.

State officials need to upgrade the quality and accessibility of information on all schools statewide. Along the way, they should take care to accurately assess schools that serve students who have grown accustomed to being overlooked.

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