October 20, 2014
By Randi Weingarten, Detroit Free Press guest writer

AFT President Randi WeingartenWe need to ensure that every public school is safe, welcoming and a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and kids want to attend and learn.

Dearborn middle school teacher Kristen Farkas knows the power of investment in public education and, conversely, the damage to students’ education when budget cuts made in Lansing reach her classroom and those across the state.

School-funding reductions have resulted in larger class sizes and fewer teachers. In Detroit, for instance, there are now about 100 teacher vacancies, swelling some class sizes to more than 50 kids. There also are now fewer art and music and enrichment courses such as advanced-placement science and social studies and extracurricular activities like robotics. And because of severe education cuts, not all districts with disadvantaged children have desperately needed school-based wraparound services to meet kids’ health care, social and emotional needs.

We can argue about the exact amount of state cuts to public education, but what’s important has been the devastating impact of these policies in classrooms and what needs to be done to do right by our students, their future and our state’s economic future.

We have witnessed the damage done by austerity rather than investment, and the infatuation with for-profit charters and other school privatization plans regardless of their performance. This is unfair to Michigan’s students, who are future leaders and engines of our nation’s economy.

Since the 1990s, the State of Michigan has provided the overwhelming majority of school funding to local school districts. When that funding is slashed, districts’ education programs struggle because they don’t have the wherewithal to offset the difference. Yet cut the state did, with less school funding going into our classrooms now than before Gov. Rick Snyder took office. Countries whose students out-compete ours invested in education during and after the recession because they understand the important link between education and the economy.

There are many schools throughout the state where labor and management are working together to limit the harm done by budget cuts, including working with community groups to provide wraparound services. Yet there are too many where there is a combination of reduced budgets and poor choices on how to spend public education dollars. In Detroit, K-12 education has been chaotic — to be generous. During the Snyder administration, Detroit schools have been suffering through a hodgepodge of traditional public schools, charters and the Education Achievement Authority for the 15 lowest-performing schools.

Detroit Public Schools have been plagued with teacher vacancies — primarily because of uncompetitive salaries — overcrowded classes and cuts to programs that help improve teachers’ practice. The charters don’t do any better, and sometimes worse, than the regular public schools, and, as the Free Press reported, lack transparency and accountability. And the EAA schools have been a mismanaged disaster. Student enrollment has dropped by 25%, a third of the teachers have left, test scores have been the same or worse, and the district’s finances have been questioned. Incredibly, Snyder wants to expand this failure.

We need to ensure that every public school is safe, welcoming and a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and kids want to attend and learn.

Michigan must restore budget cuts that have reduced resources for students and teachers, cut the number of educators, enlarged class sizes, and eliminated art, music, physical education and career and technical education. Even Snyder, who says the state has turned the corner, should be willing to do this. To be well-prepared, students need an engaging curriculum in which they learn how to apply knowledge, solve problems and think critically. We need to invest more in wraparound services like health clinics and afterschool programs to mitigate poverty and give all kids a decent shot at life. And teachers need to be well-prepared, well-supported and part of a collaborative education team.

To reclaim the promise of public education in Michigan, students, educators and parents need leaders who believe in investing in programs with a proven track record, not failed approaches. Unless the right choices are made, that promise won’t be realized.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C.

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