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Column: Teachers, hold up under pressure

Steven Cook

In a few weeks, my six years as MEA’s president comes to an end. Reflecting on everything that’s occurred during this turbulent time — including unprecedented political attacks on the education profession — I’m struck by two things.

First, the resilience of MEA’s members, this union, and the labor movement in the face of these threats has been remarkable. Many believed we wouldn’t still be around to stand up for workers, families, and public education — and they were wrong.

Second is the commonality of these attacks and the prevailing political belief behind them — that the almighty dollar is more important than people. We must stay focused on fighting that world view, especially in the way it’s been pushed by forces such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Look at the attacks on collective bargaining rights, school budget cuts paying for unaccountable big business tax giveaways, or the continued legal fight against returning money that’s owed to school employees. The common thread always comes back to money — specifically wealthy CEOs and campaign contributors.

DeVos’ climb to the nation’s top education post is a telling tale.

Profiting off public schools has been a focus of DeVos and her family’s activism for decades. Now on a national stage, her agenda remains demeaning public schools and turning them over to the private sector. Her financial and political clout here in Michigan led our state to the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of for-profit charter schools in the nation.

The result: every year over $1 billion is siphoned from neighborhood schools into corporate coffers at the expense of 1.5 million public school students. This continues unabated even though academic results of for-profit charters is no better (and often worse) than traditional neighborhood schools.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, and now frontline fighter against the corporate so-called “reform” movement, recently said we’re in the midst of an “existential” battle to save public education.

“DeVos wants to expand privatization to include vouchers, virtual schools, cyber schools, homeschooling and every other possible alternative to public education,” Ravitch said recently in the Washington Post. “DeVos has said that public education is a ‘dead end,’ and that ‘government sucks.’ ”

Republican support for massive school funding cuts in 2011, which Michigan schools are still recovering from, helped pay for unaccountable tax breaks for corporate special interests. Next, in 2012, Schuette led the charge against efforts to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights — again, because it ran counter to the financial interests of GOP donors.

And for longer than I’ve served as MEA president, Snyder, Calley and Schuette have fought legal decisions directing the state to return 3 percent of school employees’ salaries taken illegally from them in 2010-12.

The fact is, most Republicans have stood in lock-step with the DeVos viewpoint that our tax dollars are a profit source for corporations and their CEOs. But that’s why organizations like the MEA are and will continue to be here to stand up against that agenda and advocate for what students, parents, educators and communities deserve.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.


Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.