Advance Notice: Briefs

Shades of Cherry Commission in Whitmer’s education and workforce agenda

By: - February 14, 2019 11:26 am

At GM’s Romulus Engine Plant in 2009: Lt. Gov. John Cherry, Governor Granholm, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Dr. Montgomery, and Congressman John Dingell | John Cherry via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Do you remember what the Cherry Commission was? If so, congratulations. Like me, you are a huge policy nerd.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

But in light of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announced goal at her State of the State address to have 60 percent of Michigan residents attain a post-high school credential by 2030, it’s worth taking a trip in the Wayback Machine.

Back in 2004, the last Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, was looking for ways to jolt Michigan from what would become a decade-long recession. She charged her lieutenant governor, John Cherry, with looking at ways to improve Michigan’s economic growth and higher education achievement. He convened a 30-member commission and compiled a 143-page report.

“Michigan is moving through an economic structural shift,” Cherry said. “Our future will be rooted in brains, not just brawn; in minds, not just muscle; in learning, not just lifting.”

The most-reported goal was to double the number of Michigan’s college graduates in 10 years. That didn’t happen, of course. In 2005, 26.8 percent of Michiganders had a bachelor’s degree, according to U.S. Census data. By 2015, there was some improvement at 29.1 percent. We’re at 30.6 percent as of 2017, the last year census data is available.

John Cherry

The report also had a number of other recommendations, which became part of Granholm’s agenda. There was the beefed-up job retraining program that became No Worker Left Behind and the 21st Century Jobs Fund aimed at diversifying Michigan’s economy.

New rigorous high school graduation requirements were implemented. But subsequent Legislatures have rolled some of that back, like a 2017 law giving students flexibility for their foreign language requirement. And the $4,000 Michigan Promise scholarship for every high school senior became a victim of budget cuts in 2009, although there are “promise zones” in certain areas.

Whitmer’s 2019 education agenda is broader and meant to attract some GOP support, as she talked about closing the “skills gap.” Her goal includes skilled trades certifications and associate degrees. Currently, 43.7 percent of Michiganders have a post-secondary credential.

She’s also outlined two paths to easing the burden of higher education. There’s the Michigan Reconnect program that would provide a tuition-free pathway to an in-demand industry certificate or associate degree for Michigan adults 25 and older. And there’s the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship for high school students.

While Whitmer noted these programs are built on those implemented in Tennessee, you can definitely see shades of the Cherry Commission recommendations and other Michigan initiatives. (Coincidentally, Whitmer could use the vote of Cherry’s son, state Rep. John D. Cherry (D-Flint), for her plans).

It should be noted that none of this is a new interest of the governor. As Senate minority leader, Whitmer proposed in 2013 the Michigan 2020 plan for free college — years before U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made it a signature issue in his presidential campaign.

The GOP majority decidedly was not interested in Whitmer’s proposal back then. It remains to be seen if she can convince the current Republican leadership of her new, broader plan now.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.