Labor Voices: New leadership can drive solutions for education

Paula Herbart

As a legislator, Gretchen Whitmer understood both the challenges facing public schools and the solutions needed to fix them. Now, as governor, she now has the power to pursue those solutions.

Kids in class at Madison Elementary School.

Refreshingly, Whitmer understands that improving our schools and raising student achievement requires input from experts — classroom educators across the state.

Instead of blaming teachers for all of the perceived problems in our public education system, she has vowed to listen to us and work as a team — not as adversaries.

Everyone has a stake in our schools’ success — and everyone involved needs to be held accountable for helping Michigan’s students.

That doesn’t mean the governor or anyone else should gloss over the very real issues schools face: A law retaining third graders who aren’t reading well enough, without the resources needed to help them achieve. Schools struggling to meet the diverse needs of all students. Overemphasis on standardized testing. A broken school funding system that is shortchanging students.

Instead of creating more standardized tests and more for-profit charter schools as the road to educational excellence, Whitmer understands that those policies have not only failed, but have hurt Michigan’s public schools.

The proliferation of standardized tests has done nothing to improve student achievement. Once viewed as a panacea to fixing public schools, these tests have actually harmed public education. As we have seen policymakers ramp up the number of standardized tests over the past twenty years, we have seen a corresponding decrease in student achievement. Why? Because more testing means less teaching.

Further, the $1 billion drained from the education budget every year to fund for-profit charter and cyber schools has robbed traditional public schools of badly needed funding. The return on that investment in terms of student achievement has, with few exceptions, been abysmal.

Meanwhile, four studies over the past two years have concluded that Michigan is dramatically underfunding our public schools. Last year, the School Finance Research Collaborative, a diverse group of business leaders and education experts, released a study that concluded we should be spending approximately $2,000 more per student to properly educate Michigan students.

Unfortunately, in the lame duck session, the Legislature and outgoing governor exacerbated that problem when they approved a measure that diverted hundreds of millions in new revenue earmarked for the school aid fund to road repair and environmental clean-up. While both are pressing problems and need funding, this diversion of money from the education budget is another in a long line of raids on education funding for other purposes—a practice that Gov. Whitmer has promised to end.

Also in lame duck, the so called “A-F” school rating bill was passed into law, which may be in violation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (a question Attorney General Dana Nessel will hopefully clear up). The A-F scheme, which would be the third school performance rating system since 2012, will be largely based on standardized test scores. It will do nothing to improve low performing schools nor will it increase student achievement. However, it will raise the bet on what is already viewed as high stakes standardized testing, reversing efforts to reduce over-reliance on standardized testing and its dominance over the education of our children.

Professional educators are eager to contribute to policy discussions that focus on solutions that will make Michigan a “top 10” state in public education. We look forward to participating in that effort, along with our partners in the business community and lawmakers from both parties. And we are excited that our new governor understands what needs to be done and is willing to work across the aisle to pursue policies that return Michigan schools to national prominence.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.