MEA prez: Teachers want to be heard

Paula Herbart, recently elected president of the Michigan Education Association, speaks with Jesse Kainulainen, science teacher at Marquette Alternative High School, at an event Monday evening at the Marquette Commons, part of Herbart’s statewide listening tour. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

MARQUETTE — The No. 1 thing educators in Michigan want is to be consulted in the decision-making process for public education policy, said Paula Herbart, recently elected president of the Michigan Education Association, at an event in Marquette Monday evening.

Herbart talked with educators and political candidates at the Marquette Commons while on a listening tour of the state, following her election in April.

Herbart said she wants to hear about the concerns, joys and challenges of public school employees to find out how the union can help protect, support and speak to their issues “and hopefully make a difference in their lives, day in and day out.”

What Herbart said she’s learning is that teachers are “very impassioned about ensuring that the educator’s voice is part of the narrative with policy makers.”

As examples, she cited third grade reading legislation, school funding, privatization of school services, and the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who Herbart said is inexperienced and promoting the use of public funds for private, for-profit entities.

Herbart, who was a middle school choir director in the metro Detroit area for 20 years, said teachers are “recharged and re-energized” after two terms of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the election last year of President Donald Trump.

Due to developments that have been unpopular with many teachers like changes in the teacher pension system and a general decline in respect for teachers, Herbart said teacher recruitment and retention is a major problem.

“The most important thing is that you have a quality public educator in front of those students,” Herbart said. “So we put these constraints, these mandates on our young teachers with no reward for the hard work. And students need absolutely the best person standing in front of them, and we have that, but they’re going to leave.”

Since 2008, the total number of Michigan college students studying to become teachers is down more than 50 percent, according to Bridge Magazine.

Despite modest increases to per-pupil funding, Herbart said that with the budget cuts in the last eight years, there are still significant losses that haven’t been returned.

“We’re doing more with less every day,” Herbart said. “Our teachers are doing a great job with the money that they’re receiving. The problem is you have stagnant wages, (and) there is no security in retirement in the way there was when I began.”

Herbart also claimed there have been no studies on funding adequacy in Michigan, even though a study was completed in June of last year by Denver-based education policy consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

“Here’s the problem — we don’t know what it costs per pupil to educate a child in Michigan, we’ve done no studies, we’ve had no research,” Herbart said.

The adequacy study recommended spending about $8,700 per pupil, compared to the current minimum of $7,600 per pupil in the state.

Herbart said however that the study doesn’t directly relate to every student in every community and fails to account for poverty levels and the distinctive needs of individual communities.

The study does acknowledge the need for the state to collect more targeted data to set regional cost differences in the future, including busing in more rural, geographically spread-out districts.

The study also recommends creating a more equitable state funding system, since there is significant variation in per-pupil spending across districts, with inequality seeming to be on the rise.

Nonetheless, Herbart said she would urge legislators to do further study to find out what the cost of educating a child in Michigan really is, and “then commit.”

“We need to have the educators’ voice in the policy making,” Herbart emphasized. “Ask the experts, teachers that are on the front lines, bus drivers who see these children come on their buses with no socks in January. … Because we have ideas, we haven’t been engaged by many of our policy makers, and we need that, and that’s why it’s so important somebody like (Democratic Candidate for the 109th House District) Sara Cambensy is at the table speaking up for us directly with those legislators.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.