Michigan's New Motto: Blame It on the Teachers

Unless you are saving lives on the operating table or vaccinating children in Africa, it takes a certain kind of chutzpah to constantly insult and berate teachers.

Because chances are, your job is nowhere near as important as that of the folks responsible for shaping the young minds of tomorrow. That goes for lawmakers, lobbyists and yes, annoying reporters like myself.

Anyone who has to corral a bunch of sugar-addled kindergartners or try
to break through to angry teenagers deserves hazard pay. Because if our
kids don't get the education they need in their early years, they are
screwed. That didn't used to be the case, when the auto industry was fat
and happy and doled out jobs as high school graduation gifts.

But nowadays, if kids don't earn a college degree, they are almost
completely shut out of the middle class. Maybe an associate's degree in a
technical field will suffice. But that's about it.

Teachers are critical to this process. So are parents, but most of them
are too busy working 60 hours a week, often at a couple jobs, to teach
their kids very much at home. And let's face it. Once kids start
bringing home algebra, most of us are hopelessly lost.

But ripping teachers seems to be the new pastime in Michigan, where we've somehow decided that greedy educators are the reason why our state has become a dismal, broke failure.

Republicans are forever telling us that they're paid too much.

Most people in the private sector don't make $45,000 a year, they complain -- a sad fact in and of itself. Because you ain't living like a Rockefeller on 45 large. That might get you a ranch house in an exurb and a Hyundai, if you budget right.

But most people in the private sector don't have a college degree. That's kind of a requirement to teach in public school. If you're going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a B.A., it doesn't seem ostentatious to earn more than minimum wage.

And if politicians aren't attacking the pay, it's the benefits. It's true that most public employees -- including teachers -- have better health care and retirement than most of us in the business world. Not those at the top -- executives at Citibank and Bank of America walked away with multimillion dollar bonuses after bringing the world economy to its knees in 2008.

Job well done, boys.

But teachers certainly don't contribute that much to the world.

And there are dozens of other laws that have been introduced in Michigan taking fire at teachers, from getting rid of collective bargaining to stripping anyone who goes on strike of their teacher's license.

Now times are tough in Michigan and some public worker benefit reforms are going to happen. I've never been opposed to a health care pool for public employees (boy, former Speaker Andy Dillon's plan looks a lot less draconian now, huh?) or putting a hard cap on what's paid for health care benefits.

But let's get one thing straight. It is not an imperative that we do this. It is a choice. We have chosen to forgo billions in tax dollars in the last decade by giving away tax breaks for economic development. Now Gov. Snyder wants another $1.2 billion tax cut for businesses.

By going down that road, by golly, public employees are going to see dramatic cuts. And for all the talk of government efficiency, it's not clear that we'll make any headway. The smart money is that overworked, underpaid employees won't be as productive.

In the 1970s, we passed the Headlee Amendment to cap how much citizens could be taxed. Under former Gov. John Engler, we almost hit the annual limit. Now we're almost $10 billion under it.

The average Michigander's tax burden has dropped significantly since Big John was in office.

Some relatively simple changes to the tax code could bring in a lot more revenue and most of us wouldn't notice -- not any more than we would with Snyder's proposed tax hikes. Expanding the sales tax to services and doing a graduated income tax -- where low-income people would pay less than they do now and the wealthy would pay slightly more -- are sound economic practices.

But there are too many special interest groups who would howl. And evidently, protecting golf courses from taxation is more important than making sure teachers can afford their mortgage payments.

So let's be clear about things. We don't have to go after teachers to keep the state afloat. But Republicans and Gov. Rick Snyder want to. That's a fiscal and political choice that they have made.

Want to know the real reason for their war on teachers? It's not that lawmakers and administration officials are uneducated. Quite to the contrary, especially in the executive branch, folks are college-educated.

But many of them don't really value public education as an institution. Ideologically, they much prefer private and religious schools and homeschooling and would rather spend the money there.

In general, they're very uncomfortable with what they perceive as a liberal institution full of people who usually vote Democratic. By definition, there has to be something wrong with it. Let's not forget that the biggest teacher unions tend to throw a lot of money at Democrats.

And everyone has had a bad teacher. There are plenty of them. That's not really a solid basis upon which to make public policy, though. There are also plenty of bad lawmakers, but anyone can run. There are far more requirements to be a teacher.

I think there's some middle ground. We desperately need a slew of educational reforms, like a longer school
-- all-year is fine with me. We need to stop teaching to
standardized tests -- which are dumbed down in Michigan, anyway -- and
help kids become critical thinkers and writers. Merit pay and tenure reform are discussions worth having.

But in order to get there, we have to stop the teacher-bashing. If Republicans are serious about improving education, and not just scoring cheap political points, they will. 

Susan J. Demas is a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service. She can be reached at sjdemas@gmail.com.