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Michigan Republicans are contributing to the state's education crisis

May 24, 2017

We have an education crisis in this state; in case you haven’t noticed, Michigan is having trouble recruiting enough teachers, especially good teachers, especially in our larger cities.

That’s not surprising.

Teaching elementary and high school students is difficult and draining, if done right. You are chained to the academic calendar –no fall vacations or long weekends. Teaching involves a lot of work on nights and weekends.

The myth that this is compensated for by three-month vacations in the summer is largely just a myth. Younger teachers are usually in school themselves much of that time, working on advanced degrees in order to sharpen their skills and get paid a little more.

For many years, teachers did have a few consolations – good health care and a decent pension system, in part because they won contracts modeled after those in the auto industry.

But for at least the last decade, Republicans in the Legislature have been hell-bent on reducing teacher benefits. One of the excuses is that Michigan is a poorer state, and doesn't have the money we once did.

There is some truth in that, though I’ve never heard anyone say that due to economic conditions, they were going to a cheaper heart surgeon who got her training in Communist Romania.

In fact, when you look at most people’s lives, having good teachers early on is far more important than having a good heart surgeon later.

You could make the argument that given our economic woes, it would make sense to spend even more to attract the best teachers possible. But those who control the Legislature don’t think that way. One of their major goals has been to weaken teacher unions, and that is somewhat understandable. In the past, they have contributed heavily to liberal candidates and causes.

But the Legislature also has sometimes behaved as if they had it in for teachers, period.

They’ve had to pay more for health care, and they were switched earlier from a traditional “defined benefit” pension plan to what the governor calls a “hybrid” plan.

That plan, which applies to new teachers now, is partly defined benefit, partly 401(k) contribution. This plan, unlike the traditional one, is solvent and fully funded. The governor’s attitude is that this plan “ain’t broke, and since it ain’t, don’t ‘fix’ it.”

But conservative ideologues are essentially against any government pensions, and want to force this switch even though it would actually cost the state more to do so. They are also making the nonsense argument that young teachers will like this better.

I don’t know if they actually believe this. But I do know that a new teacher making $30,000 a year and struggling to pay off student loans isn’t going to have much to sock into a 401(k) plan. Teachers know this bill would weaken their pensions.

Republicans have the votes to pass this, if most of them hang together, and then the question becomes whether the governor will have the backbone to veto a bill he opposes.

But if this does become law, it will be even harder to recruit good teachers. Which means it will become harder than ever for this state to be economically competitive in a future which will never again be fueled by good paying, muscle-based, assembly line jobs.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.