Lawmaker’s remark during education hearing draws fire

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published December 9, 2015 | Updated December 15, 2015 2:18pm




The chief of staff for state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, said that what Knollenberg remarked during an education  hearing earlier this month in Lansing did not reflect what the senator was trying to say, and Knollenberg has apologized.

Knollenberg was speaking with Natasha Baker, of the state School Reform Office, and Karen McPhee, senior education advisor for Gov. Rick Snyder, during a Senate Education Committee hearing Dec. 3 on low-performing schools.

Knollenberg said, “You mention why these schools fail. You mention economically disadvantaged and non-white population are contributors to that. And you know, we can’t fix that. We can’t make an African-American white. It is what it is. We can’t fix that.”

Baker responded with, “It differs. There’s no panacea. We didn’t get here because someone’s black. We didn’t get here because someone’s Hispanic.”

She continued, “We know low-income students probably live in single female-headed households.” She added that many of these women are “undereducated. The kids have different starting points. There are a variety of reasons for low-performing schools. This varies across the country.”

When the Troy Times called Knollenberg’s office in Lansing for a comment, Mike Murray, Knollenberg’s chief of staff, replied via email.

“It was a clunky choice of words. It didn’t reflect what he was trying to say, and he apologized,” Murray emailed.

“What Sen. Knollenberg said about kids in struggling schools is racist and is a major step backwards in improving education for our children,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, in a statement released Dec. 4. “If a child is struggling academically, it is not because of a problem inherent to their race or ethnicity.

“Research tells us what needs to be done to improve our education system and the absurd thought of changing a child’s race has nothing to do with any of it. Let’s stick to using research to improve education policy. Racist remarks only set us back.”

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, vice president of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, composed of 19 members of the state House and Senate, said that Knollenberg agreed to meet with caucus members behind closed doors Dec. 9 to discuss his remarks. Neeley spoke with the Troy Times Dec. 11.

“We’re willing to get to a better place,” Neeley said. “We’d like to see positive action to embrace a partnership moving forward in a positive direction. Only these actions will silence those negative words.”

Neeley said Knollenberg’s actions would determine if “he’s truly sorry for the pain he caused with his words.”

Knollenberg was elected in November 2014 to serve a four-year term representing the 13th District, which includes Troy, Clawson, Royal Oak, Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills and Rochester.