By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer energized the MEA Winter Conference in Detroit on Friday with a heartening message to a capacity crowd that she described as “the fiercest warriors there are, the people that make a difference in so many lives every single day, who are too often under-thanked and under-appreciated:
“Well, we are changing that, right?” she announced after taking the stage at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center to a boisterous standing ovation from nearly l,000 MEA members and leaders in attendance.
“For the next four years we are going to do right by the people who educate our kids, by the people who transport our kids, by the people who run our schools and give our kids the wraparound supports they need,” she said.
Just over a week after delivering her first in-person State of the State address since 2020, Whitmer offered a preview of the state education budget she will unveil on Wednesday and a glimpse into “the opportunity in front of us” in her first term with unified control of the state House and Senate.
“All educators are going to feel the support from this next budget. All children are going to get the benefit of finally being a priority. Everyone talks about education, but we are going to walk the walk, and we are going to walk it arm-in-arm with you.”
The governor’s message of celebration for the election and re-election of friends of public education in November – mixed with a let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work mentality – was echoed by MEA leaders and NEA President Becky Pringle, who addressed conference goers on Thursday.
Pringle, a 30-year science teacher who spent time in the state last year campaigning and knocking doors with members, said in a rousing speech she came to say “thank you.”
“Ours is not a struggle of just one day, one week or one year; ours is not the struggle for one judicial appointment or presidential term,” Pringle said. “Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, and each one of us in every generation has to do our part. The late Congressman John Lewis was absolutely right, and I thank you for accepting that truth.”
Now it’s time to show voters we can deliver results when given the opportunity to lead, Whitmer said. That has been her message to the new leadership of the now Democratic-led House and Senate, including Senate Majority leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), she said.
With Democrats holding slim majorities in both chambers for the first time in 40 years, former educators now chair committees that determine education policy and funding.
“As I’ve told my friends in the majorities of the Legislature, I don’t want to hear anyone talk about a mandate,” Whitmer told the crowd. “This is an affirmation that we are focused on the right things. This is an affirmation that we’ve got to continue to do the work, live our values, and make sure that we continue to lead for years and years forward.”
On that same note, she referred to MEA members joining their voices together to press for needed change “a powerhouse of lobbyists” who need to stay involved with their local lawmakers.
“We’ve got to make sure they keep hearing from us. We’ve got to make sure they get the support to take tough votes, and when they take them that they get a thank you from the people on the ground doing the work in communities. That’s you.”
Whitmer shared “a few hints” about her education budget proposal slated to be presented on Wednesday – the first step in a process of hashing out spending priorities in the Legislature which typically winds through the spring.
“Kids who are hungry can’t learn, so let’s feed them,” she said to applause. “Kids deserve to feel safe and supported at school, physically and mentally, whether they are in kindergarten or college. So let’s make sure that they are.”
More applause. In fact, if audience reaction is any gauge, the governor’s plan should be popular with anyone who values students, educators and public schools.
“Every classroom deserves a caring, qualified educator,” she continued. “Let’s keep growing the profession, respecting the profession, supporting new teachers and retaining wonderful educators, ensuring they have a voice in the workplace. And every school should have clean air and water, be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Let’s make sure of that.”
Whitmer and state lawmakers have already begun work on a number of education priorities: repealing the unfair retirement tax from 2011, fixing the third-grade reading law, moving the state toward universal PreK, providing students with individualized tutoring in a plan called MI Kids Back on Track, and giving more young people access to tuition-free community college.
Get involved with MEA’s first Calls to Action of this legislative term – contact your legislators to repeal the retirement tax on educators and eliminate the retention mandate in the third-grade reading law.
The governor touted a long list of accomplishments from her first term, including historic school funding every year, closing the funding gap between schools in wealthier and economically distressed districts, new stipends for student teachers, investments in student mental health, and wins over forces attempting to strip funding from public education.
The work of educators to persist and serve students, families and communities through “the toughest circumstances” of the past three years has motivated her to keep going every day, she said.
“You inspired me. So this year I’m proud of the opportunity we have, but we’ve got to keep going, and we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and not take anything for granted.”
In her remarks to the conference, MEA President Paula Herbart echoed Whitmer’s call for educators and union members to stay engaged.
“This is just the beginning,” Herbart said. “Down the road we should see bills to restore the loss of collective bargaining rights and fix the broken teacher evaluation system… so please be ready. Go to mea.org/legislation to stay updated.
“We need you. Your colleagues need you. Our profession needs you. Trust me – your voices matter.”