Published October 20, 2010
Teachers 'taking it to the street' in funding fight
By Cortney Casey firstname.lastname@example.org
STERLING HEIGHTS — Peter Vainner likens the prevailing attitude toward public education to a consumer expecting a sleek sports car for the cost of a clunker.
“You want to say that education is a priority — your actions say otherwise,” said Vainner, a Sterling Heights High School teacher. “You want more and more, and you’re willing to pay nothing for it. If I want to drive a Mercedes, I’m going to have to pay. You want a world-class education — and I think it is one of the more rigorous educations in the nation — but you don’t want to pay anybody for it. It’s time to fix the real problem.”
Vainner was among hundreds of teachers and other staffers, representing every public school district in Macomb County, who convened at Sterling Heights’ Dodge Park May 24 to make their voices heard on the issue of education funding.
Protesters — many of whom proudly sported T-shirts proclaiming their district and union affiliations — clustered along Utica Road, waving signs with slogans like “Invest in Education,” “Enough is Enough” and “Fighting for Michigan’s Future. It’s Dollars and Sense.”
The gathering, a joint effort between the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Federation of Teachers, also included speeches by various union leaders at a Dodge Park pavilion. It was part of a simultaneous demonstration at more than 40 sites across Michigan to draw attention to what participants deem inadequate school funding from the state.
“We’re going to start taking it to the street,” said Warren Education Association Executive Director Jennifer Miller. “We have kids sitting on floors without any desks. It’s really time to fight back. There’s a true funding crisis across the state. We’re really hoping to get the attention of the legislators and let them know that the only way out of this economic crisis is education.”
Heather Chase, who teaches at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, said the state funding situation has “most definitely” been felt at the classroom level.
“We’ve had issues with class sizes increases, electives being cut, school supplies being cut,” she said. “We’re here today to make sure that people understand that public education is important, that it needs to be funded. Proposal A was supposed to fund education, and it’s kind of failed the state. The big thing now is for the state to step up and find another way to pay for this.”
Martha Teshich, a teacher at Wolfe Middle School in Center Line, accused politicians of “totally devaluing education.”
“It’s very, very frightening right now,” she said. “Our classes are going to be larger, our supplies are going to be cut. We (teachers) put a lot of money in our rooms right now.”
Teshich also blasted privatization, claiming the practice results in strangers in the schools and sub-par services.
Many cash-strapped districts are eyeing privatization to trim costs. The same night as the rally and just miles away, the Utica Community Schools Board of Education voted to seek outside vendors to handle custodial, grounds and warehouse duties if the union doesn’t agree to a contract containing $4 million in concessions by June 3.
Vainner said legislators have had a variety of proposals on the table that they need to seriously consider, including a controversial expansion of legal fireworks, which has drawn criticism from firefighters.
“People are still going to Ohio, Indiana and buy them,” he said. “Why are we not getting a piece of that tax as well? Let them sell it here in Michigan. Get the tax revenue that way.”
Chase suggested raising the state sales tax by a half-percent.
“That would cover education, and other shortfalls that the state government has going on right now,” she said. “If we don’t have education in this state, what’s going to happen in the state as a whole, if we have an uneducated population?”
Deana Currie, who teaches at L’Anse Creuse Middle School Central in Harrison Township, said she wants legislators to consider “anything but cutting” when weighing options for keeping public schools afloat. She’s in favor taxing services in addition to products.
“The other piece of this is, we really can’t take any more cuts,” she said. “We’ve already cut sports and we’ve cut media specialists, we’ve cut all kinds of support staff, and we’ve cut every imaginable place that we can. The next thing that they’re going to cut is teachers, which definitely means class sizes are going to go up.”
Teshich agreed with Chase’s assessment of Proposal A, citing its repeal as the first step toward funding education “equitably and fairly and fully.”
State Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, who spoke at the protest, said leaders are faced with the competing realities of a “dismal budget situation” and knowledge that education is the solution if the state is to “turn the corner economically.”
“For education in Michigan — and, in a lot of ways, that means Michigan itself — the stakes have never been higher,” he said. “In the budget, legislators of all stripes need to make education funding a priority.”
Miller said he favors closing corporate tax loopholes that lower recipients’ tax obligations, though he acknowledged they were originally established to stimulate business and job creation.
Jennifer Miller said rally organizers were pleased with the turnout, which they estimated at 500-600.
More than 10,000 public school employees reportedly plan to trek to Lansing June 24 to hammer their message home.
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which bills itself as a “nonpartisan education and research institute,” said the protests statewide seemed to address money coming in, but not going out.
“A lot of these rallies, from what I understood, looked at the issue from one side, and that’s the revenue side,” he said. “They didn’t look at it from the other side, the expenditure side of the school ledger. The costs of our schools have been rising for about the last four decades. Looking at those rising costs — and most of them are labor costs — are something that we need to do.”
Van Beek argues that teacher compensation methods and health insurance programs are areas that must be examined in tackling the funding crisis. No matter whether legislators rely on property, sales or service tax solutions to address the shortfall, he said, “it’s going to be tied to the economic performance of the state.”