Just over four years ago, Dayna Polehanki and Matt Koleszar were working as classroom teachers — facing firsthand the challenges that decades of under-funding and misguided policy presented for public education.
Today, they not only serve in the Michigan Legislature, but have been named the new chairs of the Senate and House Education Committees under the Democratic majorities won in November’s election.
“As a teacher, I worked through an ever-changing and increasingly challenging landscape that the Legislature created for our public schools. There is a lot of work ahead of us, and it is an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with this great responsibility,” Koleszar said after being named chair last month.
The pair were featured on the cover of MEA Voice magazine in 2018 during their first run in overlapping seats in Northwest Wayne County. Now, as chairs of the committees that will debate education policy, they can ensure educators not only have a voice at the table but gavels to control the agenda.
“I am especially proud to be the first Democratic former teacher to hold the Education Committee gavel,” said Polehanki of her post in the Senate. “All school employees deserve a voice in this noble profession and I’m committed to ensuring that voice is heard by policymakers in Lansing.”
There’s no shortage of key education policies to work on in the 102nd Legislature, ranging from funding to school safety to curriculum to educator compensation.
High on Polehanki’s to-do list is a repeal of the third grade reading retention requirement.
“Our goal needs to be to actually help kids read,” said Polehanki, who served as an English teacher in New Haven in Macomb County. “The existing law has some good ideas in it, like funding for literacy coaches. However, flunking a third grader based on one reading test isn’t among those good ideas and needs to be repealed before any other students are held back.”
As a former MEA local president during his teaching days in Monroe County’s Airport Community Schools, Koleszar experienced the damage to educators’ rights and wallets under collective bargaining limitations passed more than a decade ago — including Public Act 54, which limited public employees’ rights and benefits under expired contracts.
“This bill and the damage it did to my members was one of the key things that made me want to run for the Legislature. It needs to be repealed, along with every other misguided limitation on the rights of school employees to negotiate a fair contract. After all, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
The influence of educators who’ve made the leap to run for office doesn’t stop with Polehanki and Koleszar.
Former educators are also at the helms of other critical committees, including Sen. Darrin Camilleri as chair of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Regina Weiss as chair of the same subcommittee in the House, and Rep. Carol Glanville as chair of the reinstated Higher Education Committee, which will provide a dedicated place for university and community college policy to be carefully considered.