By Brenda Ortega
I remember in June 2013 when Republican lawmaker – now candidate for lieutenant governor – Lisa Posthumus Lyons stood on the floor of the state House of Representatives and derided school employees with an offensive animal metaphor to portray them as greedy and lazy.
A bill was under consideration to dissolve two financially struggling school districts in cities hard hit by job and population losses – Inkster and Buena Vista near Saginaw – and disperse those students to neighboring districts.
Parents and children were about to lose their community schools, and school employees were poised to lose their jobs. None of them got much compassion or understanding from Rep. Lyons, then chair of the House Education Committee.
Lyons was opposed to a Democratic-sponsored amendment, supported by MEA, to require the neighboring districts receiving the students to interview displaced school employees for job openings and pay them according to their years of experience if hired.
The amendment failed, and the bill passed on a party-line vote.
“Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered,” Lyons said during debate on the measure.
I still recall the powerful anger and sadness I felt reading news coverage of her pigs-and-hogs remark at the end of a tough school year. Similar reactions flooded back to me this week when GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette announced Lyons as his running mate.
In June 2013, I was a high school English teacher in a small, Title I public school district. I taught eleventh-grade English, senior honors English, and creative writing in addition to my roles as wife, mother and coach.
I had helped to form a volunteer literacy team at my school, and we had just completed the first year of a teacher-led school improvement project providing professional development, ongoing support, and accountability measures for teachers in our school to shift their practice.
I was spending my free time writing a grant proposal to strengthen the literacy initiative the next year—in between attending school improvement sessions at a data analysis retreat hosted by my local Intermediate School District.
It was a gut-punch to hear a woman in a position of power dehumanizing me and my professional colleagues, belittling the work of dedicated educators and insinuating school employees did not deserve basic considerations.
I could only imagine the fears and worries of the teachers, counselors, aides, secretaries, custodians, food services workers and others who lost their jobs that day through no fault of their own – who didn’t know how they would pay their mortgages and feed their families.
But I didn’t have to imagine what it felt like to have my life’s work disparaged in such a way—because every educator in the state absorbed those blows on a regular basis from state officials who should have listened and supported and known better.
Lyons later would argue that her pigs and hogs comment was directed at MEA, not its members, but her record on public education is clear. She voted to slash $900 million in education spending and supported the tax on retirees’ pensions.
She led an effort to expand state takeover of schools through the now-disbanded and discredited Education Achievement Authority.
She has accepted thousands of dollars from the DeVos family and shepherded legislation to hamstring public school districts and labor unions while making it easier for dark money to flood our elections.
For me, Lyons personifies the uninspired and mean-spirited world view of DeVos-branded politicians who prioritize standardized testing systems over human beings, who issue “accountability” without accepting any, who blame instead of build.
Characterizing educators as lazy or incompetent is easier for some legislators than tackling intransigent issues such as generational poverty and inequality. Attacking public school employees also lays the foundation for DeVos to win her heart’s desire: a private, for-profit corporate school system.
By demonizing public school employees, state leaders were staking ground to cut salaries, health benefits, and pensions for educators. They cleared a path to less respect, autonomy and job security for school employees.
They paved the way to a state and national teacher shortage – and it’s not hard to see what is around the corner if we keep heading in this direction: lower standards and more for-profit charter schools.
I have known, loved, worked with, and written about educators all of my life.
They are relentlessly creative problem solvers. Dreamers. Givers. Doers. They have loving hearts and steel backbones, and they deserve better than insults – both verbal and material – they have been subjected to these past eight years.
Casting school employees as the villains in our state’s narrative is not only cheap, it’s wrong. Educators are the heroes of this story, and they won’t quit fighting for the students they love and the future they care about.