Thousands rally for Michigan schools

LANSING, Mich. — Thousands of teachers, school board members, parents, students, administrators and other education advocates rallied at the State Capitol here June 21 to demand that state legislators stop shifting educational money to greedy private interests.

“We must make this Republican-controlled Legislature do the right thing for Michigan’s children,” Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm told a throng of 12,000 that braved sweltering heat to attend the rally. “They must choose between fully educating our kids or pouring money into special tax giveaways to special interests.”

The rally, organized by the K-16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future, supported two bills in the Michigan House and Senate that would raise the level of investment in state schools and guarantee annual budget increases as needed to meet rising costs.

Granholm cited the special interests for which legislators, guided by “clever lobbyists,” have created nine “special loopholes” through which at least $110 million is shifted to wealthy commercial interests. Among the beneficiaries of this favoritism, she said, are “owners of oil and natural gas wells, vending machine companies [and] water-softener leasing companies.”

Granholm urged the crowd to “be louder than the lobbyists and special interests. Be the voice of the children who cannot hire lobbyists, and close the tax loopholes created for the special interests.”

Michigan, once one of the leading states in funding public education, has dropped to 48, according to some observers.

State Sen. Bob Emerson of Flint, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said the state’s Proposal A of 1994, which put a lid on property tax hikes, had not been intended to have the disastrous impact on education that it and similar measures passed by other states have proved to have.

“We’ve gone three years with no increase in our support of education,” Emerson said. The Republicans say higher teacher pay and benefits are the cause of the problem, but that’s just a smokescreen, he said.

On the day of the rally, the Republican-dominated Senate even barred discussion of the education funding bill, Emerson said. “They voted 21-16 to spend the time discussing things like the reorganization of the potato commission.”

A glaring weakness of the rally, some participants said, was the thousand-pound gorilla that hovered invisibly over the gathering: None of the speakers mentioned the war in Iraq and other unnecessary and wasteful military outlays as the source of budget problems and social ills in Michigan and the rest of the nation.

As many education activists have noted, if champions of using the nation’s wealth to meet the social needs of its citizens ignore the militarization of the economy, or treat the ongoing massive ripoff of state and federal budgets as a fact of life, they will fail their duty. Rather than make the citizens of a tremendously rich country scramble for meager funding, these advocates say, progressive politicians and organizations should lead a fightback against the special interests that are sparking fears and concocting wars in order to steal the nation’s wealth.