Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Serious Answer to a Rhetorical Question

cross posted at Right Michigan

It is pretty easy to figure out the purpose behind the cosmetic lather that Sen. Gretchen Whitmer is raising as she pits the big salaries of legislators against the educational survival of defenseless little school children. All interesting fights need a villain, and in this fight Whitmer has determined that the legislators are the villains, especially the villainous Republican kind. If mean Republicans do not pass taxes to fill the school aid gap, the children will suffer!

In recent years, as we all know, education funding levels have been uncertain as they overwhelmingly rely on now steadily declining tax receipts. With Michigan’s economy contracting faster than an eight chinned Jerrold Nadler, the shell game of the state lottery does not even come close to filling in the gap, and pennies from Washington rarely match the mandates heaped on districts.

So, what is the relative earning status of the people whom Whitmer is ultimately (though inadvertently) pitting against one another?

According to the American Legislative Change Council, in school year 2006-07, Michigan ranked 4th among the states in teacher salaries (h/t to the Mackinac Center) and according to the Empire Center of New York, Michigan’s legislators in 2007 received the second highest salary in all the land behind only those of the rapidly collapsing California. The 2nd highest paid in the nation versus the 4th highest paid in the nation, both pretty high rankings when you consider there are 57 states in Obama's America.

I am making light because I know that few teachers ever get rich solely on their salaries, and rich legislators become so either before taking office or after selling their souls as lobbyists after leaving office. Yet, it is hard to feel very sorry for either of these two sides when both have managed to live much better than their national peers for no better reason than Michigan’s taxpayers have been an easy target for a very long time.

Perhaps we can all remember a time in the not too distant past when Michigan could take enough money, however misguidedly, from its citizens and could then afford to provide premium salaries and benefits to both its teachers and legislators.

Not any more.

When Michigan’s economy continued to chug along and the house of cards stood firm, there was at least enough money in the kitty to keep the system afloat. It was, however, in a fragile state. Enter the financial collapse, the auto collapse, runaway energy prices, and the whole system was destined to fall apart quicker than a Larry King marriage commitment.

The truth of the matter is, Michigan taxpayers can no longer afford to pay premium salaries and provide lavish benefit packages to any of their employees, regardless of which budget line their salaries might fall under. This means that the comely Gretchen Whitmer gets her fight card filled in only half right and, in Gretchen’s defense, that ain’t half bad for her.

Gretchen’s fawn eyed pleadings assume several items not in evidence. First of all, it assumes that educators cannot provide a quality education to children at less money per student than it is currently spending. If state after state after state spend less money on teachers and still succeed, why must Michigan pay top dollar when it is both flat broke and when student scores do not bear out any real bang for that extra buck? She assumes also that cuts can only weaken education and not be used to ferret out continued waste at all levels by forcing a new look at priorities.

This might sound like an attack job on teachers and I want to assure you that it is not. I love teachers and I wish that effective teachers could be paid even more money for they provide a great benefit to society. (I also wish we could run lousy teachers out on a rail along with disruptive students, but those sentiments will never wash in Lansing even if they would save lots of money.) Right now more money for teachers is simply not in the cards.

Further, Whitmer wants to tie legislators’ salaries to funding for schools but does not consider making the same attachment to funding for firefighters, police, the DNR, DEQ, MDOT, or any other of the alphabet soup bureaucracies down in Lansing. How else can one interpret this line of reasoning other than it being an encouragement for legislators to collect a full paycheck by simply gutting other areas of the budget and lavishing education with a full arsenal of cash? Political ploys, even ones arrived at hastily, should have a little more brain matter invested in them. Perhaps Gretchen just needs a bit more sleep.

While I am not so certain that Gretchen Whitmer worked long and hard concocting the legislators vs. children strategy, how much time would it really take over the course of a full budget year for lawmakers like Whitmer to at least address some of the issues that really could have a positive impact on school financing, something that her theatrics does not do?

How hard would it be to address some of the recent mandates that have been made on districts that have had a negative impact on school finances but have had little measurable return? How much trouble would it be to consider returning some control to the local school districts? How tough would it be to address some of the burdens placed on districts by lawmakers for no other reason than to please the MEA?

Let us sit back for a moment and think. Does it do more substantive good to pit the salaries of legislators against the needs of sad eyed children who cannot spell, or would it do substantially more good to get serious about cutting back the layers of waste and duplication that take place in Lansing today so that there might be a little extra money to support the schools with?

We know Gretchen Whitmer's answer to that question, though it was intended to be rhetorical.

No comments: