To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
December 27, 2016
RE: Destroying public education in Michigan

The DeVos program for destroying public education
as manifested in Michigan

By Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

Reactionaries in Michigan continue trying to figure out ways to destroy public education, to hand over public moneys to private interests to play with. This has been highlighted in national news recently by Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to be his Secretary of Education. DeVos, a billionaire sharer of the Amway fortune, has bought her way into education policy circles in Michigan and elsewhere by massive contributions to politicians and right-wing think tanks. DeVos advocates the rapid expansion of charter schools, providing state money to them while keeping them independent of state regulation. Her followers in the Michigan legislature are now pushing for parochial and religious schools to be given state financial aid.

Another front of this effort is to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for teachers. Already the legislature has changed the pension system to a hybrid system that combines defined-benefit pensions with a 401(k), or "defined-contribution" plan. Now there’s a push to make all new employees sign up for the 401(k) plan alone and to eliminate the defined-benefit plan entirely. Such a bill was passed out of committee in the State Senate in late November, and it looked as if this bill would be passed during the legislature’s lame duck session in December. Opposition to the bill put the brakes to this push, but it appears this effort will be renewed in 2017.

There are many voices in opposition to this plan. Last year’s Michigan Teacher of the Year, Rick Joseph, argued in a recent opinion piece in the "Detroit News" that it would introduce massive insecurity and instability to the teaching profession. Teachers’ unions argue that the new plan would undercut and defund the present defined-benefit pension plan, which needs contributions from new young teachers to remain solvent. Presently the Michigan Public Schools Employee Retirement System is estimated to be $26.7 billion short in funding. But instead of fixing the pension system, the reactionaries’ plan in the state legislature is to drive it into bankruptcy and force everyone into a 401(k), which will require teachers to hire private financial planners to handle their retirement money. This will open up a massive new field of endeavor for stock brokers, giving them fees and money to play the stock market with while creating massive insecurity for teachers.

Another voice in opposition to immediate transition to the new plan is Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who says the transition itself would cost the state billions of dollars, which it can’t afford at this time. Like on many issues, Snyder appears as a voice of reason compared to some of the right-wing crazies in the state legislature, but as the chief protagonist of neo-liberal changes in Michigan, Snyder in fact leads the charge against the working class people who suffer under his regime of austerity. As the chief poisoner of Flint, scourge of the Detroit public schools, and enforcer of local rule by his appointed Emergency Managers, Snyder has worked to impose austerity on the entire working class, not only school children and teachers. His administration has done the spadework for this offensive against public education, even if he disagrees with an immediate changeover to the new system.

For now the reactionaries have agreed to go slow and reconsider their plan next year. But meanwhile they are planning other attacks on public education. Presently, when someone is due an income tax refund, that money is paid to them out of the state’s General Fund. But there’s a plan afoot to split this, to get part of the refund paid for out of the state’s Education Fund. Thus the state’s nominal funding for education would remain the same, and the legislature could not be blamed for cutting education. But the uses of the Education Fund would be changed. The AFT (one of the teachers’ unions) argues this would result in a $400 million loss in statewide school funding. This is nothing but a sneak attack, defunding public education while pretending to maintain it.

The reactionaries’ overall plans for public education are being guided by the likes of Betsy DeVos who are devoted to austerity for the masses and balancing the state budget on the backs of ordinary working class taxpayers. Meanwhile they want their private “academies” and charter schools to be funded by the state while enjoying complete freedom from regulation, free to promote religion and reactionary ideology. Education funding is to be gutted or used for private purposes; teachers are to be pushed into even more insecurity, while DeVos and her friends reap the benefits. []

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Posted on January 3, 2017