Earlier this fall (prior to the Oxford tragedy), MEA’s Statewide Screening & Recommending Committee asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a variety of questions about education and labor issues in screening interviews prior to voting to continue her recommendation for re-election.
Here are some of her answers:
Please discuss your efforts around the state’s budget during your first term. What steps do you believe need to be taken to ensure the budget is not balanced on the backs of students, school employees, families, and seniors?
The last year and a half has thrown all of us curveballs we never anticipated. I’ve seen heroic efforts inside and outside our classrooms to help meet the needs of our students. From the state government standpoint, we’re focused on doing everything we can to ensure Michigan students have the best public education today and to include long-term priorities around public education in the budget so that we can continue improving our education system.
I’m proud to have signed a $17 billion education budget that makes a historic investment in our schools, without raising taxes. Of all the things that we’ve done, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s going to impact the education of our kids now and for generations to come, as well as support the incredible public servants who make sure our kids are getting the education they need.
In the budgets that I’ve negotiated and signed, we’ve prioritized a real commitment to making our education system more equitable. It’s something that I ran on, and we have finally realized. We were able to get it done and close the school funding gap, and I’m really proud of that work.
When I ran for this office, I spoke frequently about some fundamental things we need to do as a state. Funding our kids’ education, cleaning our drinking water, fixing the damn roads, closing the skills gap. We’ve had a lot of success on a lot of these projects. There are orange barrels all over the state. We have 160,000 people enrolled in the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners programs – making skills and job training more accessible. There are 260,000 more people covered with health care through Medicaid expansion since I took office. We’ve done a lot of really good work.
Discuss your understanding of the educator shortage crisis and what steps you believe should be taken – both short- and long-term – to address the issue.
I think it’s important that people who hold office are committed to supporting your profession. And I know that isn’t just teachers – it’s bus drivers, and it’s cafeteria workers, it’s aides and it’s administration. The words that come from our leaders matter a great deal – and then those words need to be backed up by action, including improving compensation for these jobs.
What are we doing to honor this profession? Are you treating it like a profession? Compensating it like a profession? And encouraging people to pursue it?
I also think it’s crucial to support continuing education and training for educators, as well as smaller class sizes and more wrap-around services for students. The resources we were able to provide in this year’s budget – more counselors, social workers, and nurses – are important for our kids, who are facing a lot of challenges as we move through the pandemic. Educators are going to see those issues up close – closer than anyone else. We need to give them the support to address those concerns and stay committed to that over the long term.
Please discuss your views on the importance of post-secondary education vs. skyrocketing student loan debt. How can expanding access to higher education be of benefit to both students and higher education employees?
When I was in school, the cost of higher education was 70 percent on the state and 30 percent on the individual – but now it’s flipped to 30/70. That’s why we’ve moved forward on Michigan Reconnect and introduced Futures for Frontliners, to make job and skills training more accessible to Michiganders. I think making higher education more affordable is critical, especially focusing on fields that we’re desperately in need of going forward, like the teaching profession and the medical profession. Throughout this pandemic, we’re seeing the importance of those careers on the front lines.
What is your position on privatization or outsourcing of public school employees and other efforts to profit off of them?
Profiting off of education contradicts our goal. We should be investing. We should be investing in the futures of our classrooms, of the children, and of our technology. But utilizing taxpayer dollars for someone to make a profit – I think that flies in the face of our goal and undermines our ability to achieve that.
How will you protect school employees’ security in retirement, including retiree health benefits that have been promised?
I’ll always fight to protect the benefits school employees have been promised. There’s no conversation around school employee retirement that I will ever be a part of without you sitting at the table, because educators are front and center for the work that I do.
Several anti-union laws were put in place during the prior administration, including prohibited subjects of collective bargaining (like evaluations), prohibiting school districts from withholding MEA member’s dues from their paychecks and, of course, the so-called “right-to-work” law. What will you do to address these anti-union laws?
I will keep fighting against these efforts because those attacks on educators and school employees are wrong. I think we have an opportunity in 2022 to elect legislators who share that goal, but my personal commitment will not waver. Unions created the middle class in this country. Unions are crucial to our success, our ability to expand the middle class, and to value the work that you do.
How do you involve MEA in your administration and the MEA leadership in your decision-making process?
Well, the president of MEA lives right down the street from me and we talk regularly. I’m making a joke, but actually, it’s funny because it’s true.
This organization was the first to get behind me when I ran for state representative in 2000. Same was true when I ran for governor in 2018. There’s arguably no other organization who has been as supportive to me. MEA members make invaluable contributions to our state, and I will always ensure their voices are heard as we make decisions that impact them.