Labor Voices: Address Michigan’s public education challenges in 2023

With a new year upon us, brighter days are ahead for our kids and schools, thanks to elected leaders who are committed to addressing the challenges facing public education and putting Michigan on a path to prosperity.

There’s cause for optimism. On top of the record, bipartisan education budget passed last summer by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the recent election has brought a new Democratic majority to both of Michigan’s legislative chambers — a majority that should be more supportive of public education than any state Legislature in decades.

Last November, voters made their voices heard loud and clear by rejecting political extremism and divisive attacks on educators and public schools. Instead, voters chose to re-elect the most pro-education governor Michigan has had in decades and give her a legislative majority that can get things done on behalf of working families, children and communities — including strengthening local public schools.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and the new Legislature should get to work immediately on securing our children’s future.

The most critical challenge at schools in urban, suburban and rural districts alike is the shortage of trained, qualified educators. From teachers and bus drivers to counselors and paraeducators, school districts across the state struggle to attract and retain school employees.

Important steps are underway to recruit new educators into the profession, like the Future Educator Fellowship, which provides critical financial assistance to Michigan college students enrolled in teacher preparation programs.

Now, we must work to retain the excellent educators we already have in our schools and keep them from prematurely leaving the profession. Far too many teachers and support staff are calling it quits due to factors like inadequate compensation, unprecedented stress levels, unfair evaluation systems and lack of professional respect.

We need more funding for local school districts so they can increase salaries, improve health and retirement benefits, and make education a more appealing career — both for potential educators and veteran staff.

Further, educators must be respected as the dedicated professionals they are by providing them a voice in their workplaces. A decade-old law that has failed to improve education but has driven too many from the profession must be repealed, such as restrictions on collective bargaining over the learning and working conditions in our schools and threats to educators’ job security against unfair dismissals.

In the same vein, lawmakers should work to reduce unnecessary stress and bureaucracy for educators by reforming the state’s teacher evaluation system and putting less emphasis on endless standardized testing.

Beyond the educator shortage, the list of issues to be addressed by Lansing’s new pro-education majority is long:

  • Providing additional support for students to improve literacy — and eliminating misguided laws that retain third graders for underperforming on tests;
  • Reducing class sizes and providing tutoring support for students struggling in school, especially post-pandemic;
  • Addressing the mental health crisis our students face by improving the availability of and training for school-based mental professionals, such as fixing our third-worst ratio in the nation for students-to-counselor caseload;
  • Keeping students and educators safe in school by pairing those mental health resources with common sense gun safety measures;
  • And continuing to strongly invest in our schools — from early childhood through higher education — to ensure every student across Michigan benefits from the opportunities sparked by a great public education.

There’s much work ahead to make Michigan a national leader in education and reap the social and economic benefits that come with it.

Our children’s future depends on the adults coming together to get it done, both at the state Capitol and in our communities. With 2023 upon us, now’s the time.

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 Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

(Posted as submitted to Detroit News – https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/labor-voices/2023/01/04/address-public-education-challenges-in-2023/69773309007/)

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