Business leaders missed a perfect opportunity last week at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

As a premier gathering of business and political executives in Michigan, this would have been the right time for CEOs and others to say what they want loud and clear: a talented workforce and K-12 schools that will ensure next generation workers are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

An announcement outlying some of these ideas had been planned for last Thursday morning, but it got canceled after all the parties interested in attending couldn’t make it. Business groups, along with education reform advocates, had hoped to bring on philanthropic and union representatives, too.

Therein lies the problem.

While it’s worthwhile to get a wide array of buy-in, the more inclusive the coalition, the less that’s likely to get accomplished. At least that is traditionally the case with education, which is one of the most partisan (and contentious) policy issues.

Take a look at a few other groups that recently attempted to set a blueprint for school reform in Michigan. Both the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and the Governor’s 21st Century Education Commission set out to make robust recommendations to turn around Detroit schools and schools around the state.

But in trying to bring together diverse players, the end result was lackluster. The reports offered some helpful ideas, yet failed to really tackle the overarching problems facing Michigan’s public schools. And folks behind the scenes told me this was because they couldn’t agree on those bigger-picture ideas.

That’s why the business community should take the reins. A small, focused group of leaders who know what needs to be done must lead this effort.

Ken Whipple, chair of the Michigan Achieves leadership council and a retired Ford executive and former CEO of CMS Energy, knows this well. He’s spent a lot of time studying what high-performing states like Massachusetts and quickly improving states like Tennessee have done. In both those cases, it was business leaders who spurred the change. And they’ve continued to do this work. In Massachusetts’ case, that has continued more than 20 years.

“In Massachusetts, they essentially said we are going to do this and everyone else stay out of the way,” Whipple says.

That’s a lesson business leaders here should heed. Playing nice and being too inclusive will likely lead to nothing significant getting done.



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