Thank you for the opportunity to come before you today to share ideas about the kind of reforms that will truly benefit Michigan students.
Like you, the 155,000 members of the Michigan Education Association care deeply about the future of our schools. We believe that every student in Michigan deserves a great public education and we have a vested interest in ensuring that our schools excel at providing that in a sustainable way for generations to come.
We understand that the State Board of Education must be a standard bearer for public education in Michigan. But that is not the only role you play for the hundreds of thousands of students that you serve.
You must also be a cheerleader for what works in Michigan schools. You must stand up and recognize the innovations and methods and programs that we know make a positive difference in our students’ lives. You must urge collaboration and the sharing of ideas so that struggling schools can turn themselves around.
And you must demand that education become a priority for our Legislature so that our state can do the same.
Many of the so-called reforms that have been proposed and supported by the Michigan Department of Education fail to acknowledge any of the things we know work in our public schools—instead, they rely on politicians making education policy based on rhetoric rather than research.
These measures spend money on things that do not benefit the children sitting at the desks in schools across Michigan, and that is not something we can afford to do.
You are the education leaders of our state. If you are to truly demonstrate that leadership, you must push for things like smaller class sizes, early childhood education, quality professional development, and programs that target students at risk of dropping out—things that we know work and also have been shown to save money in the long run.
Instead of chasing after funding tied to unproven political whims, you must insist that our children are more than just a test score—that their value and their achievements are more than the MEAP could ever measure.
Make no mistake, the Michigan Education Association understands the need for reforms.
We believe that Michigan’s fiscal house must be put in order in to ensure that our schools have adequate, equitable and stable funding.
MEA is one of more than 30 groups that are part of A Better Michigan Future, a coalition advocating for balanced solutions to our state budget crisis.
We fully support the coalition’s “Comeback Plan,” which calls for important steps our state must take to put us on firm financial ground.
Those include auditing $16 billion worth of government contracts for efficiency; eliminating tax loopholes and incentives that don’t create jobs; expanding the sales tax to cover services and luxury items; and implementing a graduated income tax that would cut taxes for 90 percent of Michigan families.
Our Legislature works to hold schools accountable for the money they spend, but it demands no accountability from state contractors for the services they deliver—even though they receive more funds than all public schools combined.
What’s worse, the State of Michigan hands out billions in tax incentives without requiring any proof that they stimulate our economy. MEA has been a leader calling for the elimination of ineffective tax incentives, recently commissioning research by Anderson Economic Group that found several of Michigan’s business tax incentives are costing our state jobs and revenue.
On a local level, we believe that fiscal responsibility is necessary in our school districts as well. But that fiscal responsibility cannot mean that school districts shortchange today’s students in favor of tomorrow’s.
Across the state, districts are sitting on over $1.7 billion in unspent school aid dollars—stocking them away in fund equities that do no good for the students in their classrooms right now.
We believe that the money allocated to districts each year is a contract to use it to provide the best program for students—not to hoard money. Since the state finds itself in such a crisis, we believe our elected leaders should demand schools use it or lose it.
This is not a permanent fix for our broken school funding system, but it would go a long way toward filling the hole.
As schools have done for the past decade, we must continue to find ways to be as efficient as possible without harming the education of Michigan’s students.
But we cannot assume that every idea for cost-cutting actually saves money over the long term without careful analysis—particularly to ensure that those actions won’t adversely impact students.
And we must scrutinize how school districts spend the resources they have to ensure we are spending as much as we can on the instruction of students.
On the retirement front, we support ending the abuse of our state’s retirement system through “double-dipping,” where administrators and others retire from a school only to return as a consultant, drawing both a pension and a salary—with no further contribution on the part of the individual or the district.
But before we call on school employees to pay more than they already are into their pension, we must examine the history and reality of this system.
Of the approximately 20 percent of payroll that school districts put into the retirement system, less than four percent actually goes to pensions.
The rest pays for bad state bureaucratic decisions, including poor investment performance and a mid-90s raid of retiree health funds to pay for tax breaks. We must take steps to fix those problems that are not the fault of school districts or their employees.
We also believe that the promise of Proposal A must be restored so that schools do not have to live with the financial uncertainty of the past few years.
Fixing our broken funding system for public education should be job one for our Legislature.
Engler-era tax breaks have starved Proposal A of billions in funds that should have gone to public schools. While Michigan could afford these generous tax breaks in the past, we simply cannot anymore.
In addition to those huge losses, the constant partisan debates over state finances have made budgeting almost impossible in school districts—one of the reasons administrators will point to for why they should have $1.7 billion in the bank. We must reduce the financial uncertainty schools face so more of this money can go toward student instruction, as it was intended.
Of the many ways we can achieve that goal, MEA urges your support of requiring the Legislature to pass the K-12 school aid budget BEFORE school districts must approve their own balanced budgets at the start of their fiscal years in July.
But even with a more stable financial situation for schools, we will still be in tight budget times for years to come. That is why we must be vigilant that we use our dollars to make meaningful investments in our students and in our state.
We believe in putting our reform efforts into what we know works—early childhood education, individualized attention through reduced class size, and programs and support for struggling students.
MEA was proud to be a partner in the development of the at-risk program that spawned the “Superintendent’s Dropout Challenge” and will continue to advocate for the resources necessary to see such programs available across the state.
Unfortunately, none of these proven reforms seem to play a significant role in our state’s Race to the Top application.
Instead, many of the reforms passed in the name of Race to the Top center on school and teacher accountability. We understand the need for measured progress, but it cannot come at the expense of our children’s education.
Our schools must prepare students for their future by teaching good problem-solving skills and instilling in students a spirit of entrepreneurship and life-long learning. We cannot sacrifice our students’ well-rounded educations that build these critical life skills in favor of rote memorization and teaching to the test.
To this end, we must build better assessments that go further than the MEAP and other standardized tests in measuring problem solving, creativity and other crucial learning skills which students will need to be successful in Michigan’s 21st century workforce.
And, finally, while we’re talking about Race to the Top, our association has been raked over the coals for the past week, accused of sabotaging Michigan’s efforts—we’re being blamed for Michigan not being a finalist.
Members of the Board—MEA did nothing more than stand up for students and school employees across Michigan.
We asked the kind of questions that needed to be asked and we expressed the same concerns many of you had when answers were not forthcoming. And we were not alone—was anyone listening to the dozens of local school boards and superintendents who refused to sign off?
President Obama was crystal clear—Race to the Top was supposed to be about collaboration—bringing together the educational community to do what’s best for our children. But Michigan’s application was the furthest thing possible from collaboration or a sense of professional community or respect.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the fact that we were asked to sign off on the final application, without even the basic courtesy of being allowed to see it.
President Strauss, you yourself had reservations about signing this contract sight unseen because you were raised by an attorney. Well, I’m no lawyer, but I know better than to sign my name without seeing the fine print—or recommending that others do so.
In fact, the first I saw the final application was when it was posted on the Internet—AFTER it had gone to Washington.
That was after we’d been told that our participation was “optional” because we had the audacity to ask that we get to read what we were signing on to.
It’s pretty clear this wasn’t a collaborative process.
If it was, the concerns of thousands of school employees would not have been ignored—because, while politicians and pundits have criticized MEA, I have not heard from a SINGLE member who thought the state’s Race to the Top plan was a good idea for them or for students.
Michigan’s Race to the Top application was a disservice to Michigan’s students, to Michigan’s educators and to Michigan’s schools.
But we can fix this. We can work together and embrace education reform that is based on research instead of rhetoric. We can fix our school funding system so that we don’t need $400 million in one-time money from Washington to help every one of our students reach the top.
I and MEA’s 155,000 members share the goal of providing a great education for every Michigan student.
And we welcome the opportunity to collaborate on how we reach that outcome. But we call on you now to demonstrate your leadership.
Insist that the Department of Education put its efforts into reforms that are proven to work, and not overstep the direction given by recent reform legislation in the name of political expediency.
Demand that the state Legislature fulfill the promise of a quality education for every Michigan student with adequate resources for our public schools.
And embrace your role as the foremost advocates for Michigan’s public schools and the great things that are happening in them every day.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration