Screwing the future 

In Michigan, slouching toward the Third World

Phil DiMaria isn't exactly Gov. Rick Snyder's biggest fan. "Shared sacrifice? He isn't going to share in any sacrifice with this budget," DiMaria snorts. "Cutting taxes on business the way he wants to is just going to make him richer."

DiMaria, who lives in Eastpointe, has had two careers, neither of which has made him rich. He spent 30 years as a cop in Troy, which overlapped some with the 20 years he has spent as a Macomb County Commissioner.

What bothers him most, however, is Snyder's proposal to tax pensions as income. The governor, he notes, is a multi-millionaire venture capitalist and former computer executive. "He's never going to know what it's like to be old and pinch pennies to buy bread, buy a quart of milk. We need to stop this, or there is going to be no middle class left in America."

DiMaria seems mad as hell, and he's doing something about it. He's leading a petition drive opposing any pension tax. He's sent blank forms everywhere from Chelsea to Petoskey, and says the response to what he is doing is overwhelming and enthusiastic.

His plan is a little fuzzy, but the goal is to get as many signatures as possible, and then, perhaps in May, take them to Lansing and present them to the governor and the Legislature, hopefully with as much fanfare as possible.

DiMaria, a Democrat, knows the governor is determined, and that he has huge Republican majorities in both legislative houses. He knows the odds are against his being able to change Rick Snyder's mind or completely preventing any pension tax, though he'd like to do both.

But he knows that many of the newly elected GOP legislators have to run again next year, and fear the wrath of vengeful seniors, who vote more faithfully than any other group. He figures that if the petition even persuades them to limit the pension tax somewhat, it will be worth it.

Nobody doubts DiMaria's sincerity. But what he doesn't mention is that he has a vested interest in this issue. He turned 60 last year, is already collecting one government pension as a retired Troy police officer, and will be eligible for another, as a longtime county commissioner.

DiMaria doesn't like Snyder's plan to severely cut spending for education either. "We are talking about creating jobs and businesses, but we are going to have to train people to work in these businesses and do these jobs," he said.

True enough. But why isn't he leading a petition drive instead at stopping the school funding rollbacks?

Why isn't anybody doing this?

The answer seems to be pure selfishness. Today's motto might be: Forget the America where people toiled hard so their children could have better lives. Forget the fathers and mothers who survived the Great Depression, returned from World War II, and then voted millages for new schools for their kids. Forget the era when states invested billions in colleges and universities and set aside funds so that kids could go to them who weren't wealthy.

We needed to worry about being beaten by the Soviet Union back then. That's over, and we have a new ethics and morality, that can loosely be summed up as: I got mine. I'm doing everything I can to keep it, and I don't owe nothing to society, or someone else's kids, or even my own.

That may not be how Phil DiMaria feels. But that's the real meaning of cutting aid to education.

Jan Scott gets that. She is 55, of the same generation as DiMaria, and, for that matter, this columnist. She's so angry that she can barely write without spewing venom. But she isn't concerned about her precious and too-small pension. Scott, who has taught in both public and parochial schools in Ohio and Michigan, is deeply worried about education and our future. "The real root of education problems is poverty — and parents not doing their part."

Yes, she knows there are "a few bad teachers. But there are ways administrators can terminate tenured teachers."

Perhaps this hasn't been done enough in some places — but Scott sees this as a distraction. She's convinced the real agenda is union-busting. "The GOP hates unions, and teachers are the scapegoats and the sacrificial lambs right now," she fumes. They aim to ruin schools as we know them to funnel taxpayer dollars to "for profit" charter schools. Naturally, these will then be run by their friends.

Whether or not that is true, it seems very odd that the governor, whose background is in high-tech businesses, isn't pumping vast new resources into education at all levels.

That's what the jobs of the future will demand. Scott, who has degrees in Spanish and French, teaches in mainly working-class Bedford Township, near the Ohio border.

Seventy miles north, Mike Simeck feels the problem even more acutely. He's the superintendent of the Berkley public schools, one of the state's best and most diverse systems. Newsweek rated Berkley High School one of the nation's best "public elite" schools. It has kids from upper-middle class Huntington Woods, mostly middle- and working-class Berkley, and a slice of Oak Park, which includes African-Americans and Orthodox Jews.

For years, they've had a tradition of spending wisely and getting results. Simeck, who came from Lansing four years ago to take this job, modestly credits "four past great superintendents." They watch every penny in Berkley.

They privatized food service years ago. The only bus service is for special education — "this is a walking district," he said. Employees already contribute to their health care.

Positions sometimes go unfilled for months until he is convinced they've got the right person. But the governor's proposed budget would destroy much of what Berkley built.

Snyder's suggested cuts would suddenly result in a $5 million deficit in Berkley, which has only 4,800 students. Since most of the budget goes for salaries and benefits set by contract, Simeck has very little room to maneuver.

He could cut the programs that keep parents in the district, like music and art, athletics and physical education. He could lay off 41 of Berkley's 253 teachers, increasing class size. Either way the district would be terribly damaged.

Parents would flee, creating a downward spiral. Years ago, he could have asked residents to vote more millage. But Proposal A outlawed that as an option. Years ago, there were legislators who had been on the job for years and understood education funding.

Now, thanks to term limits, they are mostly ignorant too. When Simeck went to Lansing recently to reason with the lawmakers, he encountered some so ignorant they'd never heard of either Title I or Proposal A.

Today's world is full of the ignorant, and of right-wing kooks clutching copies of Ayn Rand, people who think teachers don't deserve a decent living, and that money spent on anything in the public sector is mostly wasted.

Years ago, I myself spent time in places where their policies had been put into effect. They were called the Third World then, and nobody thought Michigan was likely to join it.

In fact, we would have thought part of our leaders' jobs were to keep that from being even a remote possibility.

Evidently, things are different now.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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