Launch Michigan is a new partnership bringing together diverse interests from across Michigan’s political, economic, education, philanthropic and government sectors. MEA President Paula Herbart will be a proud voice of labor on the panel, which is setting out to improve the state’s education system. Read more at LaunchMichigan.org.
Here read excerpts from a conversation about the initiative between Herbart and MEA Voice Editor Brenda Ortega.
Why is this coalition important?
We’ve been asking for years to be a part of the solution. It is so imperative that when we’re asked to be a part of something—to bring that voice—that we don’t turn it down because we’re circumspect or afraid. We assume good intention until proven otherwise. If we are true to what our values are, which is providing quality public education for all, then we have to be a part of those conversations.
Why does it matter for MEA and AFT Michigan to be at the table?
We have a singular priority, which is ensuring we’re talking about what is best for students who walk through our classroom doors, whether they’re five years old or 55 years old in higher ed. That’s what our unionism and our activism bring to the table, that we fight for students. Yes, we fight for working conditions. Yes, we fight for salaries and the respect of the professions. But we do that to ensure students have a quality professional working with them and for them.
Study after study talks about underfunding of education in Michigan, but nothing changes. How will this effort be different?
Well, one of the principles of Launch Michigan is to have this be a policy blueprint that goes beyond the next governor and the next governor, that this is not a partisan piece. This is a policy piece that says emphatically here is good practice, and we want Michigan schools to follow best practices, and if that means we need to increase the funding then we will do what it takes with whomever is sitting in that governor’s chair or the state Senate’s chairs or the House chairs.
Part of what is important here is the breadth of players who are at the table, right? It’s non-profits, school administrators, the business community, foundations, labor.
It’s a very deep organization, and there are concerns about it being almost too broad. But there is a steering committee that will be a smaller group of about 20 people. I will be one of three co-chairs that will represent the significant groups. Business, education, philanthropic.
The partnership has identified priorities that include listening to educators and working to ensure resources are available for an equitable funding model. What are the most important priorities for leaders interested in making positive systemic change?
I think we need to lay out some really forthcoming ground rules to own the disagreements that we have had in the past. We need to say to the business community, we have been fundamentally opposed to how we get this done for years and if we don’t own that and honor that and work through that, then Launch Michigan will just be a clanging gong.
How do you move on from those disagreements and avoid getting tangled in them?
One of the things that we are committed to is talking about the things that we fundamentally agree on. High-quality professional development for educators, for instance. We know that teachers feel more successful when they have high-quality professional development, and then funding to implement the things they’ve learned and know are best practices. So one of the things we’re starting with is just to ask: How do educators in the classroom feel about the work they do and how they are valued? And using that as a starting point.
One thing our business community understands at the outset is that a worker who isn’t satisfied in their work or feels underappreciated does not perform to the best of their ability. And until educators feel like they are a valued and respected member of the education community and play a vital role in all aspects of a student’s education, they will not be as successful as they could be.
Won’t a lot of this come back to the big sticking point? Funding? How do you find common ground on that?
One thing we’re doing is looking at the reports that have already been done. The Business Leaders of Michigan and the School Finance Research Collaborative that came out in the spring of 2018 both have evidence of underfunding in Michigan. They come up with very different ways to fill that gap, but I mean if we start by saying to the state government, “Don’t rob from the School Aid Fund,” let’s start there. Over $700 million a year gets funneled from the School Aid Fund into other areas to buoy up the General Fund. If we only had that, imagine what we could do, right? But we don’t.
How we get there is going to be another one of those sticking points, but we all know the teacher in the classroom and those individuals who work outside of the classroom to support student learning make the biggest amount of difference for students. Salaries, working conditions, a say-so in their profession, support resources, all of that is going to be important to address.
An issue for many educators is the top-down nature of decisions being made, and never being asked, “What do you need?” What do you need in terms of professional development? Resources? Changes that will remove roadblocks to your job performance?
I 100 percent agree. The frontline person needs to have meaningful input and not just fill out a survey and then it’s, “Best of luck to you.” I mean real integrated understanding of how their destiny is manifested. It’s about being a collaborative partner in what we know works best for student learning and what works best for teacher learning to impart student learning. Because the educator in the classroom is never not learning. They’re like millwrights, retooling, retooling, retooling. This is why we’re a union, to ensure that voice remains in the room. That we have an opportunity to say, “We have an important role to play in decision-making and professional development. We are the creators of best practices based on what we know pedagogically works the best with this demographic of students.”
Are you hopeful this initiative can move us toward an approach that is positive and collaborative rather than negative and top-down?
I think that all of us need to be open to the fact that we’re trying to do something pretty radical—having these groups of people come together and work together. If we haven’t made some real movement toward attaining our goals, whether it’s coming up with one thing we can work on and lobby together and the strategies behind that, then we might have to say, “This was a great idea whose time was not here.” We can’t keep doing Launch Michigan because we told people we would. If it isn’t doing the things that we want it to do, which is make real change for public education in Michigan, and if we can’t accomplish that, then we need to consider why that is. It could be minimal. It could be, “Oh, we didn’t look at the X factor.” I don’t know what that is. Or it could be as large as, “We’re not working together as a group. We’re grinding our wheels everywhere we go, and it isn’t working.” Then we need to talk about that.
What do you think will be the key to Launch Michigan accomplishing meaningful goals?
We have to decide what’s the most important. And right now, I think for me it’s creating an environment and a space where educators feel empowered and feel honored. And by honored, I mean of value to real education policy. I want their voices to be the voices we listen to and lift up in a way that they know the state of Michigan values their work and what they do for the good of all of the state’s people.