By Jessica Lumbreras
MEA Political Action Organizer
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pitched her budget plan to lawmakers last month, proposing the biggest increase in public education funding in a generation, I know that many of you felt something you hadn’t experienced in a long time.
It might have been just a glimmer. Maybe you worried about letting it in. But as the MEA political action organizer, I am here to tell you—not only should you have the courage to be optimistic, but now you must summon the determination to be an activist.
To pass a state budget that includes more spending on education, the governor needs our help. Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled state House and Senate have criticized Whitmer’s call to raise new revenue to stop a 25-year pattern of disinvestment in roads and schools.
We have to act now to amplify our voices by joining with others—parents, civic leaders and activists—to speak out for the change we all know is desperately needed. In this space, I’ll share MEA’s plan for grassroots organizing and action around school funding.
First, though, let me tell you why I am hopeful.
I witnessed a shift among MEA members that was sparked by the West Virginia teachers’ strike in February 2018. After years of being attacked by lawmakers in our state, Michigan school employees began to see the power of collective action.
By then you were long past the point of being ready for change. But now you saw a real opportunity to elect a governor who would understand the importance of public education, listen to the experts on the front lines, and support the work that educators do with resources.
I spent the better part of a year asking MEA members to do the day-to-day work that would help elect Gretchen Whitmer, and I rarely heard anyone say no to me.
Across the state, you organized and joined #RedForEd walk-ins and rallies at your schools to raise awareness of the need to “Value Students, Respect Educators and Fund Our Schools.”
You donated and held drives to raise money for MEA-PAC, the fund which allows us to support candidates who will protect and strengthen public education. You got out the vote by showing up for phone banks and knocking on doors in your communities.
And you won a victory that was just the start of good possibilities to come. Whitmer’s success in November advanced us to another opportunity—organizing to support her bold budget.
As MEA President Paula Herbart says, “We don’t just help get people elected, we help them lead.”
Whitmer said it herself when she visited the MEA Winter Conference a few weeks before submitting her spending blueprint. She asked attendees to re-up their commitment as she proposed a historic re-investment in public education.
“When I introduce this budget, every one of us has to put our back into it,” she told more than a thousand MEA conference-goers.
Whitmer has been doing her part. She criss-crossed the state throughout March visiting classrooms to celebrate reading month and staying after to speak about education priorities with school employees, administrators and parents.
In that spirit, today MEA is asking you to do what you do best: educate people.
We are asking you to use your respected educator voices to teach others in your communities what the problem is, how we got here, and how Whitmer’s budget starts to fix the problem. If enough of us reach out to build coalitions on the ground, we can make change happen.
So that is step one. Lots of people in your broader community are concerned about the state of public education in Michigan. They see what’s been happening, and they worry about the future for their children and grandchildren. Voter polling consistently shows they are on our side.
Pull together others in your local association who want to act, and develop a plan to speak with parents, political activists, and business and civic leaders about getting involved. Lawmakers need to hear from their constituents—the people they work for—on this issue.
To be effective, you must be armed with information, and there is plenty to choose from in two reports issued in the last year or so.
One is the School Finance Research Collaborative’s study of what it costs to educate a child in Michigan, which showed our schools to be drastically underfunded. And research from Michigan State University released in January analyzes 25 years of disinvestment in education.
Next we need union members to share their stories. Guest editorials and letters to the editor provide a great way for us to spread information to our communities and illuminate the stark differences between continuing down the road we are on and charting a new course.
Lastly, schedule a Legislative Council in your area. Legislative Councils are informal meetings with lawmakers to discuss education policy. Share the SFRC report with your lawmaker and have a discussion on the issues. Your UniServ director and MEA lobbyists can help organize.
I am not an educator. I am a product of selfless public school employees who changed my life trajectory by nurturing my love of learning from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree. This fight is personal to me for many reasons, but today it’s for my 10-year-old son.
We must seize this moment. Suffering alone will not fix our problems. It matters to so many that we are successful, but most importantly, it matters to our students.