Politics & Prejudices: Our education; our future 

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When it comes right down to it, if we want a worthwhile future, the most important issue of all is education.

Sure, preventing a narcissistic, profoundly ignorant fascist bully from having his finger on the nuclear button would be a good idea.

So would passing the Regional Transit Authority millage that will be on the ballot this fall, something that would finally give this area reasonable, workable, affordable mass transportation.

But if we really don't want Michigan's economy to continue to collapse, if we don't want to become Guatemala with sleet storms, we have to build an education system that really works.

As State Board of Education President John Austin puts it: "Do we want to teach the skills needed for the work of tomorrow — or politicize our schools and curriculum?"

By politicizing the curriculum, Austin means, among other things, "injecting climate change denying, creationism, fear of people who are different, hate and bigotry into our schools."

Not to mention, that is, continuing to encourage substandard, for-profit charter schools, a move that may be making some of Gov. Rick Snyder's buddies rich, but is otherwise ruining our state.

That's really what is at stake here.

Republicans wanted to, more or less, rig this election and come close to seizing control of the state board, which Democrats now control, 6-2. Granted, the board itself has little power, beyond hiring and firing superintendents and setting an inspirational tone.

Austin has been doing that — and as a result, has a target on his back. Last spring, he drew the wrath of the homophobes by endorsing President Barack Obama's call for transgender students to be allowed to use whatever restrooms they felt more comfortable with.

That enraged the religious right — who became apoplectic when Austin announced he planned to have the board come up with voluntary guidelines for protecting such students later this fall.

That was more than enough to put a target on the back of the 54-year-old Austin, who is running for a third, eight-year term this fall.

Republicans have usually been frustrated in their attempts to capture education seats. Besides the state board, the governors or trustees of Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State are also elected in a statewide vote of the people. Candidates for those seats, by the way, are, oddly enough, selected by their party's state convention.

This year, both parties will pick their education candidates on Aug. 27, apparently politicians' idea of fun on a Saturday afternoon in August. Usually, Democrats nearly sweep these contests, because voters in Detroit figure Republicans have nothing to offer them — and just fill in the straight-ticket oval on their ballots.

Last year, however, Republicans outlawed straight-ticket voting, and, in an underhanded abuse of the law, stuck a small appropriation in the bill so voters couldn't hold a referendum and restore it.

They knew exactly what they were doing. They figured this would lead to long lines in inner-city precincts, and mean some folks wouldn't be able to vote at all, and others wouldn't finish their ballots, meaning, they hoped, Austin and other Democrats would be toast.

But they overreached. The inherit racism in what they did caused U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain to declare the anti-straight ticket law unconstitutional, something that was unanimously reaffirmed Aug. 17 by three justices on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Bill "Trust Fund" Schuette, Michigan's partisan hack of an attorney general, vowed to keep fighting to get the anti-straight ticket law reinstated, but as of this writing, he seems to be losing.

Just as he did when he made a jackass of himself in his battle to try and stop same-sex marriage. Austin and Ismael Ahmed of ACCESS fame, the other Democrat most likely to be nominated for the State Board of Education, don't want the race to be primarily a referendum on transgender issues. They want voters to think.

Michigan has been increasing spending on education less than almost any other state. Simply put, the question is:

"Do we want to rebuild our support for Michigan's (once) great public education and affordable higher education or to continue to privatize it and spin it downward?" Austin asked.

Do we want to inject climate change denying, creationism, fear of people who are different, hatred and bigotry into our schools?

"Do we build and keep the talent we need to create the jobs of the future — or do we want to chase away our people and be a backwater in the 21st century economy?"

It's as simple as that. For the last few years, Michigan has been working hard to win the race to the bottom. We're spending almost twice as much on prisons as on higher education.

We are letting any last chance for fixing Detroit's schools slip away, because the legislators want to give owners of for-profit charters the chance to make money at the expense of Detroit's kids.

Electing decent and well-intentioned people to the State Board of Education won't in itself save education in this state. Electing the wrong people, however, may irreversibly damage our futures.

More than two centuries ago, a woman waited outside the hall where the U.S. Constitution was being written, and asked Benjamin Franklin, "What kind of government have you given us?"

He supposedly told her, "a republic, if you can keep it." Gradually, that evolved into a representative democracy that was supposed to be designed for the good of us all.

We're losing that now. It's up to us to decide whether we want to make a huge effort to get it back, or settle for a state with a whole lot of poorly educated people in jobs that don't pay a living wage.

Greed and selfishness on the court

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Peter O'Connell, who has been squatting on the bench since 1994, has never been a particularly noteworthy jurist.

But he's now doing something that should get himself in the record books. He's running against a colleague on the court for a seat both of them already hold.

You might say that makes no sense. But here's what's happening: Michigan law says that state judges can't run for re-election once they turn 70 — though they can finish any term they happen to be serving when they hit the old three score and ten.

O'Connell was last re-elected four years ago. But he will turn 70 two years from now, before his present term expires, and that would mean he couldn't run again. So this year he is doing something truly bizarre: running for another seat on the same court against a colleague, fellow appellate court Judge Michael Gadola.

What the hell?

Simple. O'Connell figures if he wins, he can sit on the bench until he is 74, drawing a salary of $151,441 for four extra years.

That should be illegal, but apparently it isn't. In fact, this only got some public attention when McConnell wanted to be listed as the incumbent, when he is trying to knock off another incumbent.

Another of his colleagues, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Stephens ruled he couldn't do that. But at last word, O'Connell planned to appeal her ruling, too.

Yes, comrades, all this costs money, but I'm sure the taxpayers wouldn't have it any other way. Why should anyone worry about spending the people's money and tying up staff time when some obscure state judge decides the rules shouldn't apply to him?

I hoped that help you get your priorities straight.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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