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This week Christina Shockley talked with Jack Lessenberry about the focus of the auto bailout at the Democratic National Convention, the teacher retirement benefit bill that has been heating up in Lansing, and the special primary taking place Wednesday in southeast Michigan.

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Teachers challenge retirement bills

"The first day of classes was also the day Governor Rick Snyder approved some big changes to how teachers and other public school employees will save for retirement. The new law will require teachers to pay more for retirement benefits. New employees will no longer get retirement health care coverage, but a savings account to help them buy insurance. Teachers unions are already in court to challenge the law.  A judge in Ingham County struck down part of the law within a few hours of the governor signing it. Judge Rosemary Aquilina said retired teachers deserve more time to choose whether they will pay more for their existing benefits, or choose reduced benefits. The new law gave them a month and a half to make their decision," Rick Pluta reports.

Special primary election today in southeast Michigan

"Five Detroit-area Republican candidates are competing for the chance to serve the final weeks of former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's term in Congress. A special GOP primary election is being held Wednesday to pick a candidate to face Belleville Democrat David Curson in the Nov. 6 special general election. The winner of that race will serve only from mid-November until the end of the year. A separate contest on the Nov. 6 ballot will decide who fills the seat for the next two years. Republican ex-teacher Kerry Bentivolio faces Democratic Canton Township Trustee Syed Taj in that race. McCotter resigned this summer during an investigation of irregularities in the nominating petitions that kept the Livonia Republican from seeking re-election. Three former aides are charged with scheming to submit false signatures," according to the AP.

UAW president to address the DNC tonight

"United Auto Workers says union President Bob King is scheduled to address the Democratic National Convention. The Detroit-based union says King will speak this evening during the event in Charlotte, N.C. The UAW says 89 of its members are delegates to the convention," according to the AP.

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The first day of classes was also the day Governor Rick Snyder made some big changes to how teachers and other public school employees will save for retirement.

The new law will require teachers to pay more for retirement benefits. New employees will no longer get retirement health care coverage, but a savings account to help them buy insurance.
Teachers unions are already in court to challenge the law, but Governor Snyder said he's not worried about the lawsuit. He said he expects to be sued when his administration makes big changes.

"So I sort of take that as part of the course of action, but we feel good about our litigation position in these matters. These are good things to do. We are doing them in good faith in partnership with the Legislature passing good statute," said Snyder.

The governor and many school administrators say the teacher pension system is over-burdened with debt, and the changes will ensure teachers' benefits will be there when they retire.

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Biden's Labor Day visit

Vice President Joe Biden rallied in Detroit Monday during the Labor Day parade. "He talked about how America is better off today, in part because of the auto industry bailout.  That message will be a central theme for Democrats at this week’s national convention," Kate Wells reports.

Teacher retirement changes

"Governor Rick Snyder will sign legislation today  that will change how teachers and other school employees save for their retirement. Most school employees will have to pay more for their retirement benefits. School employees hired after today will no longer have a retirement health plan, but will pay into a medical savings account to purchase coverage when they are no longer working. Snyder says it will shore up the state’s credit rating, and ensure taxpayers won’t be saddled with the costs of a bailout years down the road. Teachers unions say the plan breaks promises made to school employees, and went to court on Friday with a legal challenge," Rick Pluta reports.

Voters decide on replacement for US Rep McCotter tomorrow

Some voters in Souteast Michigan are heading to the polls Wednesday to vote for a temporary replacement for Republican U.S. Representative Thaddeus McCotter. "McCotter quit in July after it was discovered that petition signatures were forged or copied in at least two of his campaigns. Five Republicans are vying for the seat. They'll face a Democrat, a Libertarian and a U.S. Taxpayers Party Candidate in the November 6th general election. The taxpayer tab for the special election will be at least $650,000 thousand dollars. Low voter turnout is predicted. Four of McCotter's former staff  members have been charged in the petition scandal. McCotter has not been charged," Rina Miller reports.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder will sign legislation into law Tuesday that will make some changes to how teachers and other school employees save for their retirement.
School employees will have to pay more for their benefits, and those hired after today will no longer get retirement health coverage.

Instead, they will get savings accounts to help them buy insurance once they are done working.
Governor Snyder said he understands that many school employees are upset.

“We had to make some reforms to make it fiscally viable and financially sound f or their future, too, in terms of their retirement benefits," said Snyder. "So, it’s a case of us all working together, and sometimes change is tough on people and I appreciate that. We’re just trying to make it something that lasts for the long term for the benefit of all."

Snyder said the new approach will begin to retire a long-term pension liability estimated in the billions of dollars.

He said it will also shore up the state’s credit rating, and ensure taxpayers won’t be saddled with the costs of a bailout years down the road.
Teachers unions say the plan breaks promises made to school employees, and went to court on Friday with a legal challenge.

(courtesy of KQED)

In 2011, a new teacher tenure law was put in place by the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Snyder. It called for teacher evaluations, but it didn't specify how these evaluations should be done.

Now the panel put in charge of figuring that out will test 4 national teacher evaluation models in 14 Michigan school districts.

More from Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press:


LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled unconstitutional a state law forcing school employees to pay 3 percent of their salary toward retiree health care.

A copy of Thursday's 2-1 ruling was released Friday.

The contribution was put into place in 2010, and unions representing teachers filed suit. In 2011, retired Ingham County Circuit Judge James Giddings, who was hearing the case before he stepped down and returned to finish the job, ruled that school employees were paying into a system that may not ultimately benefit them.

The contribution was instituted as part of an effort to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the state. MLive.com reports some unions want the money to be refunded.


It was a busy day for lawmakers at the State Capital on Wednesday. They came in from summer recess for a one day session.

Out of that meeting, Gov. Snyder is expected to sign legislation that will require teachers and school employees to pay more for health insurance and pensions.

Teachers and other school employees will soon be paying more of their salaries for health care and pensions.

Governor Snyder is expected to sign bills that require school workers to pay four or seven percent of their salaries for retirement benefits, depending on what plan they have.

School employees will also pay more for their health insurance when they retire.

Randy Richardville is State Senate Majority Leader.


Superintendent Dedric Martin says the school system could need an emergency manager, unless staff agree to deeper cuts. 

Martin acknowledges staff already took a 10 percent salary cut. 

“That comes on the heels of additional concessions that they've made. And we've had reductions at all levels. Unfortunately it's not enough to carry a balanced budget and pay back money that has already been borrowed and spent," he said.

Martin says he knows the "emergency manager" card could be perceived as a ploy to get further concessions from unions.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Senate is expected to vote on legislation that would end state-provided health care coverage in retirement for new public school hires and require current employees to pay more toward pensions.

The Wednesday legislative session is the only one scheduled for July. The Senate is expected to take up the bill passed last month by the House.

The bill doesn't contain earlier language that would force new teachers into a 401 (k)-style plan. The measure calls for studying how ending the pensions would affect the state.

DETROIT (AP) - Teachers in three school districts run by the state are laid off with many not knowing if they'll have jobs when classes begin.

Charter operators have yet to be selected to run new systems in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.

State-appointed emergency managers have shopped Muskegon Heights in West Michigan and Highland Park near Detroit to charter operators as part of plans to pull the cash-strapped districts from near-fiscal ruin.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Seventy-four people have been selected to participate in a program to develop math, science, engineering and technology teachers for several Michigan rural and urban school districts.

The state announced Wednesday the second class of fellows will receive $30,000 to pursue master's degrees at University of Michigan and Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Grand Valley State and Wayne State universities.

The program recruits recent college graduates and those seeking a different career. This year's fellows include a fighter pilot, police chaplain, biologist and kayak instructor.

About two thousand people applied.

They will teach in districts including Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Wyoming and Ypsilanti.

The Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation launched the program in 2009. It's administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - The Flint school board has voted to lay off 237 teachers as part of an effort to eliminate an estimated $20 million deficit for the coming year.

The board voted Tuesday to lay off 108 elementary and 129 secondary school teachers.

Earlier this month, Mlive.com (http://bit.ly/JnOdC1 ) says the board voted to close both middle schools, along with Bunche and Summerfield elementary schools.

A state House committee goes to work this morning on a plan that would force teachers and other school employees to pay more for their retirement benefits.

Governor Rick Snyder and Republican leaders say the plan is necessary to ensure the long-term solvency of the retirement system.

There are a lot of details to work out, but the bottom line for public school employees is, one way or the other, they will pay more for retirement benefits and retirement health care. Governor Snyder says, overall, he supports the plan. “Cause it’s striking the right balance about taxpayer long-term liabilities and employees who have benefits," Snyder says.

Retired teacher Thom Housman asks, "What’s going to happen next year? What more can they take from teachers next year?" Housman says Republican leaders at the state Capitol have targeted teachers time and time again to address budget troubles regardless of promises that have been made to school employees.

There’s an ongoing debate about how to sustainably fund the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System.

According the Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the Center for Michigan, the retirement system is underfunded by $45 billion.

Bridge Magazine staff writer, Nancy Derringer, has taken an in-depth look at this issue.

Derringer notes that Senate bill 1040 would change the way the retirement system is funded. "If you are a new employee your contribution to the retire system would increase to 8%. And they currently pay 3 and 6.2 % of their salary. And then if you are a retiree you currently have your health care premiums 90% paid by the state and you pay 10%, that would switch to 80/20."

A Pontiac teacher who says she was fired after helping her students organize a fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin is receiving support in the form of over 200,000 petition signatures. According to the Detroit Free Press, the online petition calls for Brooke Harris to be reinstated to her post at Pontiac Academy for Excellence and organizers plan to present the signatures during a meeting of the school's board at 5p.m. today.

From the Free Press:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Ala., started the petition.

The district has denied Harris was fired because of the fundraiser, but Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell previously told the Free Press she could not discuss a personnel issue.

According to Harris, the Free Press writes, students in her yearbook class planned to raise money and pledged to wear hoodies to school, a violation of the school's dress code meant to show solidarity with Martin who was wearing one when he was shot and killed in Florida earlier this year.

Harris told the Free Press that when school administrators became aware of the plan, they moved to block it:

Harris said Cassell said no, and when she asked whether students could meet with Cassell to make their case, she was suspended for two days for being insubordinate.

Harris said she came to the school while suspended, so her suspension was extended to two weeks, but she was fired after questioning it.

It remains to be seen if the petition will have any effect on Harris' employment status.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Teachers turned out by the hundreds in Lansing to oppose legislation that would force them to pay more for their pensions and retirement health care, or have their benefits reduced.

Some of them protested outside a state Senate committee hearing today on the legislation.

One of them was Pinckney teacher Sam Ziegler. He says the measure would break a promise to his profession.

"I knew I wasn't going to be a millionaire teaching," Ziegler said. "But it was something that was worthwhile that benefited others and myself, and I was told that I'd have a pension to go to and now it’s just slowly eroding and I see the danger that it will keep eroding away."

But some Republicans like state Senator Patrick Colbeck says the public school employee pension fund has liabilities so big the system could go insolvent if nothing is done. 

"Somebody’s got to pay for that eventually, later and right now that’s being pushed off because – if we’re talking about dealing with unfunded liabilities – being pushed off to the same kids that we're working hard to educate right now," said Colbeck.

Teachers say state government has increased the stress on the system with budget cuts that reduce districts capacity to pay into it, and forced layoffs that mean fewer people paying into the system.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Senate has approved legislation aimed at expanding prohibitions against sex between school employees and students.

The Senate passed the main bill in a legislative package by a 36-2 vote Tuesday. The legislation advances to the House.

The legislation would make it a crime for school employees such as administrators and teachers to have sex with students even if the student is 18 or older.

Current law sets an age of consent in such cases at 18.

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A new report shows Michigan students over the past decade have fallen far behind their peers in other states when it comes to math and reading.

The "What Our Students Deserve" report by the nonprofit Education Trust-Midwest compares National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in reading and math for fourth and eighth graders around the country.

According to the report, Michigan now ranks near the bottom in most subjects and grades.

Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, says Michigan students have been stuck in the same place for the past decade, while students in other states have been improving.

She says it's like a marathon, where She likens it to a marathon:

"We can see the other runners in this race, they’re all going much faster and much farther than our kids are."

Michigan's African American students ranked last in 4th grade reading among the 45 states reporting in 2011.

But Arellano says it’s not just low-income, urban or minority children who are struggling. White students in Michigan ranked 13th in the country for 4th grade math in 2003. Last year, they were 45th in the country.


You may have heard the promos on air: This afternoon, Changing Gears will host a live web chat with teachers across the Midwest to talk about the many changes in the past year, and what the future may bring. The web chat accompanies a piece by Dan Bobkoff that’s airing across the Changing Gears partner stations today.

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Discussions are underway to figure out how best to evaluate Michigan’s teachers.

Governor Snyder has tasked a group of five people to develop a so-called “teacher evaluation” tool as part of the state’s new teacher tenure law. The law contains a lot about teacher evaluation, but doesn’t detail what the evaluation would look like.

Sarah M. Stewart / Creative Commons

A report out this week shows more than half of high school freshmen and sophomores failed the first semester of the new blended-online courses at Grand Rapids Public Schools. GRPS is Michigan's third largest K-12 district.

The program launched in the fall of 2010. At the time it was (and may very well continue to be) incredibly controversial. Like any new program, Grand Rapids schools spokesman John Helmholdt says there was an adjustment period the first semester.

“There was both a district-wide layoff but also a huge early retirement incentive where we had more than 400 teachers, principals, and support staff retire; and so that first semester was a little rocky,” Helmholdt said. The retirement incentive was offered by the State of Michigan to try to save districts and the state money.

Test scores improved in the spring 2011 semester, but the failure rate was still 44-percent.

DPS website

Some laid-off teachers in the Detroit Public Schools are being recalled by the district which has enrolled more students this fall than expected.

The district said Saturday in a release that principals at 34 schools have requested more teachers, and that 44 teachers were added to classrooms by October 19.

Twenty-three others have reported back to work and another 22 are expected to return. Some teachers and parents have complained of classes with more students than allowed under the teachers' union contract.

The district says it has 22 classrooms out of more than 4,000 that have exceeded student number limits.

The district ended last school year with about 74,000 students and budgeted for 66,000 this fall. Spokesman Steve Wasko said projections have been exceeded by almost 300 students.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Today, the Michigan House of Representatives passed legislation that would keep public schools from automatically deducting union dues from an employee's paycheck. The vote passed 55-53 and goes onto the Republican-led Senate.

From the Associated Press:

Supporters of the bill say it will put more money in teachers' paychecks, at least up front. Teachers could write checks to unions later to cover their dues.

Opponents say the proposal is another attempt to weaken teachers' unions and inconvenience teachers in the state.

A separate proposal that could soon come up in the Michigan Legislature would make Michigan a so-called "right to teach" state.

Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger released a statement about the bill, saying that the legislation "empowers school employees.":

We are hearing from teachers, in particular, who are not happy with how union leaders are using their dues. Because that has led to disagreement, we need to make sure our public schools stay out of the middle of collecting union dues.

The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, says the legislation does nothing to improve education or put money back in members pockets:

"This kind of legislation is a blatant example of political payback for our involvement in recall elections."

The Republican leader of the state Senate says he has no interest in making Michigan a right-to-work state.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says union workers have already made many concessions to help Michigan’s economic outlook.

Kevin Wong / Flickr

Teachers in our country rarely get the respect they deserve -- a uniquely American pathology. But this year they’ve endured not just indifference, but disrespect – and from Congressmen, no less. Teachers are now blamed not just for falling test scores, but failing state budgets and rising healthcare costs.

There was once a politician who took a different view.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance – what some scholars believe to be one of the three most important documents in the founding of America, along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence – provided funding for public schools and universities. In it, he declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Allieosmar / Flickr

This week, Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that dramatically changes teacher tenure rules here in Michigan. To take a look at the politics behind the controversial bills, we spoke with Susan Demas, political analyst for Michigan Information and Research Service, and Ken Sikkema, former state Senate Majority Leader and senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

The new teacher tenure law that Governor Snyder signed this week makes it easier for school districts to fire teachers in classrooms where students are struggling.  As Rick Pluta reports, the law "eliminates discipline and layoff rules as a subject of collective bargaining with teachers unions."

The devil is in the details

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder recently signed a package of bills that reshapes teacher tenure in Michigan. The bills remove seniority protections and make it easier to fire teachers who have been identified as “ineffective”.

Michigan Public Radio Networks’ Lansing bureau chief, Rick Pluta talks about what this means for teachers and how state leaders plan to implement the new law.