What Are Michigan's Education Priorities?

Jul 29, 2011

These are tough times for teachers.

Actually, this is an even tougher time for education. Yet the  way in which all sides have been approaching this major and growing statewide crisis is, at the very least bizarre.

Take the Michigan Education Association, for example. It is by far the state’s largest teacher’s union, and has been around since before the Civil War. It proudly proclaims “the mission of the MEA is to ensure that the education of our students and the working environments of our members are of the highest quality.”

That sounds good. But if you watch what they do, rather than what they say, you might conclude their charter statement really says: “The MEA’s mission is to prevent our members’ salaries and benefits from being cut by any means necessary.”

That’s really what the union is about. I was reminded of this yesterday by the revelation that the MEA spent $25,000  dollars to try and get Paul Scott, a state representative from Grand Blanc, recalled. Why the union is doing this isn’t clear.

Except out of sheer vindictiveness. Scott, who chairs the House Education Committee, voted this year to slash elementary and high school funding by twice as much as was actually cut.

I wouldn’t expect the union to support him for reelection. But recalling him would in no way change the balance of power in Lansing. If you are a teacher in Holly, say, you might wonder,“Is that what I pay several hundred dollars in dues for?"

That doesn’t mean the education community should be pleased with government. Most members of the Republican majority in Lansing would enthusiastically agree  that this state needs a much better educated workforce. However, most are entirely capable of uttering in the next breath that we need to cut teacher salaries and, especially, benefits and pensions.

What is especially puzzling is that so few people see this as a contradiction. These days, Republicans control every branch of state government, and have been energetically cutting  spending on education, to give business large tax breaks instead.

Democrats, who have little power, have been protesting these cuts. But their hands aren’t pure either. Seven years ago, when there was a Democratic governor and the economy was in far better shape than it is today, the lieutenant governor presided over a special commission that studied higher education. It concluded that we needed to double the number of Michiganders with advanced degrees within a decade.

His administration then proceeded to repeatedly cut funding for higher education. They argued that the money just wasn’t there. That was true, in a sense, but neither did the Granholm Administration make a case to the voters for more tax revenue.

They might not have gotten it, but they might have gotten people talking about education, not just money.

What’s we desperately need in Michigan today is a conversation about education at all levels. What do our students need to be competitive for the jobs of the future? What do they need to know to be well-rounded citizens? Do we need more professors or really skilled electricians and plumbers?  We need to answer those questions first, and then figure out how to pay for what we need.

If we do that, we might be a lot better off.