By Jo Bird
When I was a teacher in Zeeland for 31 years, I continued learning and growing throughout my career. Now that I am retired, I keep on fighting for public education. I will never stop, and I hope everyone reading this will join me in this important election year.
A lot of reasons keep me active in helping to elect friends of education at every level – from school boards to the state legislature and president of the United States. But right now, with everything our schools and educators are facing, one motivation pushes me forward that I want to share with you:
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is the best friend that public education has ever had!
As tired as we all are of the pandemic and the difficulty and change it has caused, imagine how hard the last two years would have been if Bill Schuette had been elected in 2018 instead of Gretchen Whitmer. I am serious—stop and think about it!
I could tell you what that scenario would have looked like, because I lived through Gov. Rick Snyder – and before that Gov. John Engler was the reason I became politically active. In fact, my fire was lit by Engler and his moves through the 1990s to destroy public education through privatization, for-profit charter schools, and vouchers – a fire that burns to this day.
Under Engler and Snyder, we saw attacks on collective bargaining, assaults on pensions and health care for school employees, and drastic cuts to school funding from preschool to universities and community colleges that dragged down Michigan’s once-great system of public education.
I wasn’t content to sit idly by and watch the destruction.
During those other administrations, I remember making countless trips to Lansing with other educators to lobby for public school students and educators and defend school funding and employee benefits. It was tough on morale when we had governors routinely signing terrible bills into law.
For 25 years I served as my local union’s political action (PAC) chair – part of the time while I was teaching German, Spanish and English to Zeeland high school students, and then for several years after I retired. That meant I got to go around asking everybody to donate money to elect good candidates (MEA dues dollars are not used for political purposes).
I am good at inspiring people to become involved because I believe in the fight for truth, justice and democracy. In fact, for a time after my retirement I served in two PAC chair roles – with both the Zeeland EA and the Lakeshore chapter of MEA-Retired, where I am president. I became known for the crazy costumes I wore performing skits to raise awareness and money for PAC across the state.
I will do what it takes to elect friends of public education!
In addition to working for MEA-PAC, over the years I volunteered for many candidates from school board on up, knocking on doors and working phone banks to get out the vote. Most recently, I spent many weeks gathering nomination signatures to get Gretchen Whitmer on the ballot in November – just as I did in 2018.
It was a great feeling when Gretchen Whitmer was elected four years ago, but it has been even more rewarding to see her following through on her campaign promises in office.
Just listening to the respectful way Gretchen talks about educators is meaningful to me. She always talks about the importance of public education to our state’s future, and throughout the challenges of COVID-19 she has continued to highlight and reward the hard work of public school employees.
Candidates backed by money from the likes of Betsy DeVos prefer to talk about punishing schools and educators with ideas like getting rid of staff or taking away funding based on test scores. Gretchen Whitmer believes in giving educators resources to do their jobs and giving more money and help to schools that need it the most.
Governor Whitmer shows genuine concern for maintaining and strengthening public education in Michigan. Her actions speak louder than her words:
- Whitmer has focused on restoring RESPECT for public school students and staff.
- Whitmer avoided budget cuts to K-12 School Aid during the pandemic. She did not ask districts to lay off employees. Staff members received their salaries and benefits and were commended for meeting the challenges of educating students online.
- Whitmer continued pay/retirement credit during spring 2020 despite suspending testing requirements.
- Governor Whitmer prioritized public school employees for COVID-19 vaccines.
- She authorized hazard pay grants for public school employees.
- In July 2021, Gretchen pushed for and signed a bi-partisan 2022 School Aid Budget of $17 billion. This included a historic increase in funding for schools without raising taxes.
- The 2022 School Aid Budget closed the funding gap between rich and poor school districts. It equalized funding for the first time, which was the goal of Proposal A in 1994. Whitmer got investments in preschool through graduation, expanded early childhood education for low and middle- income families and even provided significant resources for counselors, nurses and social workers.
- The Governor created and hopes to expand the programs Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. Both offer a tuition-free path to Michigan residents 25 and older for higher education or skill training.
- Gretchen Whitmer appointed MEA members to state committees and boards, including the Michigan Public School Retirement System, allowing educators to fill seats at decision-making tables.
In February, Governor Whitmer presented a proposed state budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins October 1, 2022. A large focus of the budget is on school funding. Here are a few highlights:
- $18.4 billion in K-12 spending.
- An additional $2.3 billion in K-12 spending for the current year. This $435 proposed increase in the per pupil grant would bring the foundation allowance up to a record $9,135 per pupil.
- $2.2 billion in bonuses and other programs to attract and retain teachers.
- $222 million to boost support for economically disadvantaged students.
- $150 million to step-up support for special education students.
- $1 billion for the creation of a school infrastructure modernization fund for future years.
- A 5% ongoing increase, plus a 5% one-time increase for university and community college operations and $200 million for campus infrastructure, technology, equipment and maintenance.
Gretchen Whitmer’s ties to public schools are personal. Her two daughters attended public K-12 schools and now attend public universities in Michigan. She has been there for us, and now we need to be there for her.
Don’t take her for granted. Don’t sit out this election and expect others to step up. Support the Whitmer campaign financially and work intensely for her re-election. Work like your career, livelihood and the future of public education in Michigan depends upon it!
Give to MEA-PAC to help elect friends of public education at www.meavotes.org.