Education's last chance

Nov 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Suddenly, there's a chance to do something to prevent many of our state's school districts from being utterly ruined this year. 

Last week, I wrote an open letter to the governor, criticizing her for, among other things, making massive cuts to the schools. Her cuts mean that every Michigan school district will have at least $292 less per child this year than they had counted on. Some districts, mostly those that have historically spent the most on their kids, will take a hit nearly twice that. Harper Woods, for example, is the worst affected. Birmingham isn't far behind.

What this also means is that some districts will be forced to close early this year, as Kalkaska did in what were routinely billed as the bad old days before Proposal A. Others may go into Emergency Financial Managerdom. Every district will see fewer services of some kind than last year, and only Krishna knows what new damage this will do to the remnants of Detroit's once-proud school system.

However, as I was saying, there is a way to avoid disaster, at least this year. Politicians had once counted on using the state's Obamabucks, aka the federal stimulus money, to get them through next year's election, at least. Now, that won't happen. Near as I can tell, there's only about $184 million left from the more than $2 billion in stimulus money the state received.

But someone had an idea. Grab that remaining stimulus money now, and use it to ease the school fund cuts this year. Last week, the state House of Representatives got off their dwindling assets and passed a bill to do exactly that. Gov. Jennifer Granholm this time agreed to sign the bill if they can get it to her desk.

This would mean the districts now losing $292 a student would lose only $175. Tough, still, given that the school budgets have already been drawn up and the year is well advanced. But that would be much better than the deeper cut. 

One would think the Republican-controlled Senate would go along. After all, this isn't a tax increase. What the bill does is use money that's sitting there to educate the children who are Michigan's future. Who could possibly stand in the way of that?

The right-wing fanatics who control the Michigan Senate, that's who. Most of all, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop of Rochester Hills, for whom your children are only pawns in the game. For proof, take a look at the statements uttered by Matt Marsden, Bishop's press secretary and mouthpiece. Last month, when Granholm cut per-pupil aid to the schools beyond the original $165 agreed to by the state Legislature, Marsden denounced her. "We have passed a balanced school aid budget. Why propose such a ridiculous cut now?" he told The Detroit News.

"It's not only unnecessary, it's a stunt," he added. 

But then when the House proposed putting the money back, he swiftly changed tune. Well, almost. Before, Matty called the cuts ridiculous.

Then, last week, he called the proposal to put the money back "absolutely ridiculous." Well, some folks have a limited vocabulary.

Instead, he sneeringly suggested the Democrats were sitting on other money: "The House has $100 million in the Earned Income Tax Credit freeze bill that Democrats refused to use."

Makes a nice sound bite, doesn't it? Here's the truth. The Republicans set up a poison pill, agreeing to allow Democrats to use a little bit of money by canceling the Earned Income Tax Credit that gives our poorest citizens a tiny bit of relief.

But in addition to screwing over those folks, legislative Democrats would have to agree to quickly phase out the surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax — without replacing the revenue lost to the state in any way. This makes no sense at all, according to the nonpartisan Citizens' Research Council, or CRC. 

What it would do is hurt the neediest, and run up the state's deficit even higher, according to their analysis. Nevertheless, as I write, Bishop has shown no sign of budging. Why won't he spend this last bit of stimulus on the schools?

Politics and personal ambition. Thanks to our insane system of term limits, Bishop cannot run again next election. Nor can Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, or Granholm herself.

They are going to be getting out of town, and need jobs. Bishop knows the one he wants: attorney general of the state of Michigan, a position the voters will fill next November. But there is a catch. First, he has to be nominated, and, unlike most other elective positions, the voters have no say in who the parties nominate for jobs like attorney general and secretary of state. Bishop is going to have to convince a room full of party activists, aka delegates to a state party convention, to nominate him.

These are not going to be normal people, but right-wing nuts. Eleven years ago, a roomful of these chuckleheads turned down then-Gov. John Engler's request to nominate Scott Romney for attorney general. Romney wasn't sufficiently crazy for that GOP convention, and they nominated one John Smietanka instead, who managed to lose the race to an unknown young lawyer named Jennifer Granholm, whom Romney would have defeated with ease.

Right now, Mike Bishop is an underdog for the attorney general's spot, running behind Bill Schuette, a former congressman parachuting back into politics. Bishop needs to show he can score a big victory for the poison Kool-Aid drinking nuts, and block any attempt at raising revenue or saving the schools. That's exactly what he will do too, if the voters don't do something to stop him. If you want your state to have any future, put this paper down and write, telegraph or grab your local state senator and try to make them agree to fight for the schools.

Tell them to support HB 4860, and use the last of the stimulus money for the kids. That money will be long gone before next year, no matter what. If they don't use it for the kids, the Legislature will use it for something else, or just throw it into the ever-growing deficit hole.

We can only have a future if we give our kids the best education possible. Every earlier generation of Americans wanted their kids to have it better than they did. Do we really want to be the first to give them less?

Hooray for Dave Bing:
Whatever you think of his policies, Bing did something far too few figures in public life do these days. He was willing to use up political capital to stand on principle. He beat Tom Barrow in the August primary by an astonishing 74 percent to 11 percent. Most politicians would have then said little and cruised to a record victory.

But the new mayor took on the tough issues instead, telling the unions they were going to have to take painful cuts or massive layoffs. Enraged, they switched their support and their dollars to Barrow. That translated into a much-reduced but still significant 58 percent to 42 percent Election Day win for Bing. That left him with a firm mandate for what he needs to do, and leaves the out-of-touch unions on the outside looking in, the real losers in this race. Here's a sad statistic, however.

Both candidates combined got fewer votes than Kwame Kilpatrick did four years ago. The loser in that race, Freman Hendrix, got 38,000 more in 2005 than the landslide winner did in 2009. 

Where have all Detroit's voters gone?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]