Education, Michigan Democrats, Michigan Republicans — June 18, 2013 at 7:07 am

UPDATED: Democrats turned the opportunity for a win on school dissolution legislation into a complete loss


Aye aye aye…

As I wrote last Friday, Republicans in the state House threw a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to help failing school districts back in the faces of Democrats who were trying to make improvements and ended up passing a bill that, once again, harms students and throws teachers to the curb.

Recall that, during the debate, Republicans acted like complete jackasses, absurdly blaming the teachers for the financial crises in places like Inkster and Buena Vista, calling them “hogs” and saying that “they should never try to get another job in education”. It was offensive to its core.

Well, there’s a bit more to this story and, unfortunately, Democrats played a major role in botching this up royally.

I spoke to Democratic state Representative Adam Zemke about the way things played out in the wee hours of Thursday morning last week. Zemke, like a lot of Democrats, was not thrilled with the legislation but saw it as the best chance to get help for kids in failing school districts but getting them into one that is more stable. The root cause of the school failures is not just mismanagement at the local level, he told me, but of the slashing of revenue from public schools by Republicans. “It’s pretty clear we have a revenue issue in those schools,” Zemke said.

The school dissolution legislation was a bipartisan bill sponsored by Democrat David Rutledge and Republican Bill Rogers. With schools facing either an Emergency Manager or becoming privatized if they couldn’t come up with a suitable debt elimination plan, something had to be done to offer a better alternative and this bill was a step in that direction. Without it, Inkster and Buena Vista schools simply wouldn’t open in the fall.

There were two issues that were being debated heavily between Democrats and Republicans. The first was the right of intermediate school districts (ISDs), the county level school administration, to have the right of first refusal on overseeing newly created districts if one was dissolved. The other was an amendment to give teachers in the dissolved district first crack at any new teaching positions created when dissolved school districts were merged with others.

The ISD issue was a non-starter with Republicans. Period. However, there were still conversations being had about giving teachers an opportunity for any new jobs. It make sense, of course. These teachers are familiar faces to the students dealing with having to be uprooted and sent to a different school. Having teachers they know would help with that transition.

On Thursday, Republicans announced they were going to vote on the bill before they recessed that night for the rest of the summer. Dmeocrats caucused with the MEA, AFT, and AFSCME, all of whom urged them to vote for the legislation with the provision that teachers be protected. This would have been introduced as an amendment during the second reading of the bill. They were willing to give on the ISD right of first refusal issue in order to support students and teachers.

However, there were a group of Democrats who were unwilling to budge on the ISD issue. All the needed was 24 votes to get the labor provision into the bill but they could only secure between 16-21 because a very small handful of Democrats simply would not budge.

In the end, they got neither the labor provision OR the ISD right of first refusal provision, all because a few Dems dug their heels in and would not compromise.

Zemke told me, “Democrats could have claimed a win and gotten something better for students and teachers. Instead, they got nothing. We had a chance to show leadership on this issue and we wasted it.”

It’s the classic self-punch.

Democrats don’t have much power in our state legislature these days. They should be using what power they do have very wisely to push for whatever improvements in bills that get passed that they can. If they can’t provide leadership in this way, and on the school dissolution bill it’s clear that a small minority simply could not — or, rather, WOULD not — then they need to get the hell out of the way for those who can and will. We need them to be good leaders and cannot afford this sort of self-defeating garbage. There’s simply too much at stake.

UPDATE: To be very clear on this, I understand why Democrats wouldn’t support the bill without including the teacher/student protections. I support that including Rep. Rutledge’s decision not to support a bill he initially co-sponsored. The point is they could have had those protections if they were willing to concede on the ISD provision and some Democrats simply were not willing to do that so they lost both. Ironically, the teachers unions themselves were willing to make that concession.

And, make no mistake, this isn’t a bill that will solve our schools’ problems, even if Republicans would like to spin it that way. It’s a Band Aid on a gaping wound as I’ve already said, a wound largely inflicted by Republicans. It’s just that, as powerless as Democrats are now, they need to take their victories, such as they are, when they can get them. This was an opportunity lost to improve a bill that is now a bigger piece of fecal matter than it would have been otherwise.