By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
Follow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at campaign and speaking events, and you quickly notice one way she likes to introduce herself: “as a product of public schools and the mother of two daughters who attended public schools…”
Whitmer makes clear in how she talks to and about educators that she’s proud of the work all public school employees do to help young people learn and thrive – including bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, food service workers, paraeducators, counselors, teachers – everyone.
“Thank you,” she said at an MEA-PAC event in July attended by all of the above. “I’m incredibly grateful for everything you do for our kids and for our communities. Thank you for helping create some normalcy for young people who’ve been through so much these past couple years – not to mention all you’ve been through.”
Perhaps a governor who appreciates the work of educators and the value of public education is not a radical concept.
But consider her opponent in the Nov. 8 General Election. A one-time actor and conservative commentator who previously worked at a steel company owned by her father, Republican nominee Tudor Dixon has never held elected office. Her children attend private schools.
Dixon has said she would make education a “top priority” if elected. The problem is her education priorities are destructive.
Given that many of her top donors are named “DeVos,” it’s no surprise when Dixon promises to enact a voucher scheme long sought by the wealthy west Michigan family. More than 20 years ago, by a huge margin, Michigan voters crushed a DeVos-bankrolled voucher proposal on the ballot.
The latest plan being pushed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would divert $500 million away from public schools to private and religious schools in the first year alone, with that amount increasing in following years.
In an interview with Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan, Dixon said passing the DeVos-backed tuition voucher scheme would be her number-one education goal if elected. In addition, she strongly supports the retention mandate in the third grade reading law, which Whitmer has called to eliminate.
Adding insult to injury, Dixon also supports plans to require school districts to post curricular materials at the beginning of the school year or risk the loss of state funding. In statewide polling by MEA in August, 84% of educators strongly disapproved of such a measure.
Dixon has joined in other divisive movements. She has accused schools of focusing on “indoctrination” of students and she participated in a bizarre June 30 press conference on the steps of the state Capitol in support of a bill to ban so-called “drag shows” in schools.
Neither the bill language nor the press conference participants – which included a few GOP lawmakers in addition to Dixon – could define a drag show or cite an example of one happening at a school.
The choice is clear, Whitmer said in her acceptance speech at the Michigan Democratic Party’s nominating convention at the Lansing Center in August.
“It’s a choice between culture warriors who want to divide us and distract us from their dangerous plans or problem solvers who are proven and make the seat at the table for everyone,” she said.
The stakes in this election are dramatic, she concluded in her speech: “Public education is on this ballot. Our economic future is on this ballot. Our democracy itself is on this ballot. And the right to choose is on this ballot.”
Last year Whitmer vetoed a voucher scheme the Legislature sent to her desk – like the one Dixon supports – to give tax breaks on private school tuition. “The movement to privatize education in this state has been a catastrophic failure, causing Michigan students to fall behind the rest of the nation,” she told reporters after the veto.
The basis of her education policy-making has been to listen to educators, respect their expertise, and deliver needed supports.
“If we want to keep improving our schools in Michigan, we’ve got to reverse decades of disinvestment in public education and continue to make bold investments in our kids, our educators and our schools,” she told delegates to the MEA Representative Assembly last April. “Your tireless work puts Michigan students front and center, and when you succeed the state of Michigan succeeds.”
Whitmer has secured historic state funding for every student in Michigan for the past two years – without raising taxes – bringing additional increases for disadvantaged and special education students, and providing big boosts to preschool, child care and after-school programs.
The 2023 budget includes $100 million for school-related infrastructure needs, and for two years in a row impressive resources have flowed toward programs and hiring of staff to serve students’ growing mental health needs.
Next year’s budget also includes visionary new programs to eliminate hurdles to becoming an educator and begin to address a critical teacher shortage – including $10,000-per-year grants for some students in teacher prep programs; a $9,600-per-semester student teaching stipend; and grants for districts to develop grow-your-own programs to help support staff become certified.
She has championed creation of multiple pathways for Michiganders to earn college degrees and skills certificates to compete for high-paying jobs. And her higher education budgets have delivered some of the biggest increases to colleges and universities in years.
She wants every child to have the opportunity for a good quality of life and every educator to have the compensation, respect and support they need to be the best educator they can be, she told supporters at a summer campaign event.
“We can make Michigan that place,” she said. “We are on the path to becoming that place, but we can’t afford a major setback now.”
Indeed, agreed MEA President Paula Herbart, the governor has shown time and again that she understands, values and prioritizes the critical work that educators do in building a brighter future for the state of Michigan. Now it’s time to send our support her way:
“There’s much to be done,” Herbart said. “Register to vote, knock on doors, donate to MEA-PAC, make phone calls, cast your ballot for MEA-recommended candidates. Let’s send Gov. Whitmer back to Lansing, along with legislators who support public education and are committed to strengthening the cornerstone of every community – our public schools!”