Michigan Tries Radical Route to Reform State's Move to Cut Its Major Source of Education Financing Is Straining Political Alliances and Threatening School Closings

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MICHIGAN is taking the radical route to education reform.

Two months ago, its legislature and governor agreed to cut most property taxes - the major source of funding for public schools. If they don't figure out how to replace that money, and soon, most school districts will find it impossible to stay open next fall.

"This represents a kind of brinkmanship," says Michael Traugott, program director at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies in Ann Arbor.

"It's also education reform by accident," says David Plank, professor of educational administration at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "The stakes are extremely high and the probability of agreement is extremely low."

Republican Gov. John Engler will have to reach a compromise in a statehouse evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. If they don't find common ground, "this whole thing could blow up in everyone's face," says Bill Ballenger, editor of a biweekly newsletter called Inside Michigan Politics. And the politics of agreement are dicey.

Even if the parties find a solution, each side risks alienating powerful friends. Governor Engler will have to think twice about forcing wealthy (and largely Republican) communities to cap their spending on schools. Democratic State Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who introduced the dramatic tax-cut amendments, has angered the state's most powerful teachers' union. The state's highest-ranking labor official recently called the senator "unelectable."

Complicating matters, both Engler and Ms. Stabenow are eyeing the race for governor next year and covet the mantle of education reformer. Both of them cast the current crisis as a historic opportunity to reform Michigan education.

"We need first to define what quality education is, and then we'll decide how much it's going to cost," says Bobbie McKennon, special assistant to State Treasurer Doug Roberts. "We have an opportunity here to really restructure education so we get the outcomes we want and deserve." The treasurer is heading up the governor's education-reform team.

The governor is expected to announce his plan Oct. 5, when he addresses a joint session of the legislature.

Stabenow released her reform program last week. …