McNeilly: Will Lansing side with corporations or kids?

Greg McNeilly

Hey parents. What would you say if I told you politicians in Lansing are poised to pass a pair of bills that would take nearly $24 million each year out of Michigan classrooms? Why? So they could send that money to two massive corporations (and major campaign contributors).

Shocked? It’s worse.

What if I told you that this giant corporate give-away might mean laying off 380 Michigan school teachers, or more? Maybe even your child’s teacher.

Hard to believe, right? Lansing wouldn’t dare. They could never get away with it.

Shockingly, that’s exactly what’s happening right now in a pair of legislative committees at the state Capitol.

Over the last few months, politicians in the state House and state Senate have been debating a pair of bills — Senate Bill 437 and House Bill 4298 — that would essentially cut per pupil funding in many Michigan schools by more than $35 a year.

The bills “terminate” electric choice and essentially force every electric customer in the state to buy their energy from two mega corporations: DTE or Consumers Energy.

The big utilities already have 90 percent of the market sewn up thanks to a law passed back in 2008, but these bills would force the final 10 percent of electric customers to leave their lower-cost electricity providers to pay significantly higher rates from the monopolies.

The legislation is a big deal for hundreds of local school districts — including many in Metro Detroit — because they currently buy their electricity from alternative providers who are able to offer them significantly less expensive juice, helping them keep millions of dollars and hundreds of teachers in the classroom.

As you’d expect, educators are rightly crying foul.

School leaders, energy managers and superintendents from across the state have appeared before various House and Senate committees this year warning lawmakers about the damage this corporate welfare package will do to our kids’ classrooms.

On Oct. 1, one coalition of public school groups, testified that electric choice has saved schools more than $120 million. Senate Bill 437 would make those savings impossible, forcing them to make corresponding cuts in the classroom.

While lawmakers were technically in the room to hear their testimony; educators have largely been unheard on this topic.

If you think a Republican bill package taking millions out of the classroom to fund a corporate welfare package for Wall Street fat cats would have Democratic committee members crying foul, you’d be wrong.

School officials pleaded with committee members like Democratic Sens. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, Steve Bieda and David Knezek not to cut school funding, but for months all they’ve gotten in return at hearings are blank stares.

Educators presented data showing that public schools in Knezek’s district, for example, have saved more than $8 million by shopping around for the best price on electricity. The Dearborn City School District alone has saved more than $3.7 million.

In Sen. Hopgood’s district, public schools have saved $5.7 million, with the Wayne-Westland Community School District keeping an extra $2.7 million in the classroom.

L’Anse Creuse Public Schools has saved $2.6 million and Chippewa Valley Schools $6.2 million, just part of the nearly $13 million in cumulative school funding at risk in Sen. Bieda’s district.

A few — too few — Republicans have spoken up and spoken out. Sen. Mike Shirkey has been a longtime defender of education savings through choice. Rep. Gary Glenn recently unveiled a reform package that would specifically protect schools (among others) from the cuts proposed by his colleagues. Rep. Jim Runestad appeared at a press conference with school leaders blasting the legislation and demanding a new course that doesn’t hurt our kids.

With 380 teachers’ jobs on the line, it’s long past time others join them.

Senate Bill 437 and House Bill 4298 will cost schools nearly $24 million a year. But it’s our kids who will pay the price.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.