Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke to delegates at the virtual MEA Representative Assembly last weekend about a variety of pressing issues on which educators need to make their voices heard.
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Whitmer said billions in federal relief dollars for public schools in Michigan represent a can’t-be-missed, once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our state’s children and system of education.
But first the Republican-controlled Legislature must release the aid sent by Congress, and making that happen should be everyone’s priority.
“I’ve made my priorities on how to spend that money clear: It’s investing in our people, in the education of our kids and skills of our workers, putting it toward small businesses and families and investments in our mutual future,” Whitmer said.
In contrast, she noted, the GOP leadership has entangled the money in political fights – by tying the federal funding for schools to their proposals to get rid of executive powers that Whitmer has used to protect lives during the public health crisis.
“The federal government has sent us these resources, and legislators need us to give it to our students and our schools and our educators,” she said. “We’ve got a chance to make a once-in-a-lifetime investment in our kids and their learning and growth and your profession. We can’t afford to waste this opportunity.
“We’re going to need your help to encourage lawmakers in the legislature to get these federal funds out the door so they can support our schools.”
The Legislature still has $841 million in federal COVID relief funding from December to send out to schools – and the recently-passed American Rescue Plan contained another $3.7 billion for Michigan schools that needs to be distributed over the months to come.
Whitmer praised educators for “leading the way for our state” in getting vaccinated beginning in January when she prioritized K-12 school employees for the shots. She cited an MEA survey in early April that showed nearly 90 percent of members were fully or partially vaccinated.
“Prioritizing educators in the vaccination drive was really important to me as your governor, as your friend, as your ally, and also as a parent. I want to thank you for doing your part to protect yourself and your family and our communities from COVID.
“Now to hit our goal of 70% vaccination rates, you’re posting online and talking to your neighbors and friends. Encouraging people to get vaccinated is really important because I know the community trusts their educators, and as usual you’re leading the way for our state.”
To learn more about the public vaccination effort, including where shots can be obtained, visit www.michigan.gov/covidvaccine.
Whitmer noted she has included educator voices at every planning step of the pandemic, including now with appointments of MEA President Paula Herbart and member Greg Talberg – a high school teacher in Howell – to the Student Recovery Advisory Council, which is developing recommendations.
The governor said she would continue to join MEA members in pressing for legislative changes to remove student test scores from teacher evaluations and school districts’ A-F accountability grades, and to prevent third graders from being retained based on M-STEP results amid the pandemic.
“Given that data we will receive from state assessments won’t give us insight and will be unrepresentative of what’s really happening, no student or educator should be penalized based on test results this year.”
The next battle that will require everyone to join forces involves voting rights vs. voter suppression, she told delegates. A 39-bill package of changes to voting rules and systems would add hurdles to the process, according to a review by the independent, non-partisan Bridge Michigan.
The bills would restrict access to ballot drop boxes and require voter identification to vote by mail or in person, among other measures, all to address fraud that experts say does not exist. Numerous audits and hand recounts in battleground states have found no evidence of voter fraud.
In the 2018 election that Whitmer won, Michigan voters opted by a whopping 33-point margin to amend the state Constitution to make voting easier and expand voting rights. “These laws now being pushed by the Legislature are designed to undermine the changes we voted on just over two years ago.”
Even worse, to lay the groundwork for restricting citizen access to the polls, her political opponents have adopted former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” about widespread fraud in the 2020 election, she said.
“They continue to perpetuate this ugly lie that has created so much rhetoric and violence and lack of faith in a system that worked incredibly well under the most unbelievable circumstances in our last election,” she said.
A record-breaking 5.5 million Michiganders cast votes in 2020, she said. “What we are witnessing is a vicious attack on our constitutional right to vote, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.”
The Republicans’ apparent strategy is to force a Whitmer veto on the bills and do an end-run using a veto-proof statewide petition initiative that would require them to gather just more than 340,000 signatures before lawmakers would vote on it.
“That’s why we’ve got to take this seriously and stay locked arm-in-arm as we fight this, because we can’t let lies – big and small – disrupt the duty we have to uphold our democracy.”
Despite the many challenges ahead, Whitmer remains optimistic, she said. The vast majority of people in the state are grateful for the hard work that educators have done to care for, feed, and educate students – as she is, too.
“I support you, and I appreciate your continued support for me and the work that we must do to ensure that as we move forward, we rectify everything from underinvestment in education to under-appreciation for those who go into education, to the righteous conversation around race in America, and justice, and policing, and a fundamental right to vote.
“We can’t afford to waste this opportunity, so I’m going to continue to fight for our public schools, our public school ecosystem, and every person that works in it and makes it work for our kids.”