The MEA President Lays on the Guilt Trip

How will Michigan respond?

At bottom, Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters’ latest commentary in The Detroit News is an attempt to lay a guilt trip on Michigan taxpayers, essentially saying, "If you really cared about your children you’d send us more money." This sort of manipulation can be annoying when it comes from an acquaintance. When it comes from the president of a multimillion dollar government employee union and lobbying group, it’s bound to be expensive.

Hectoring, nagging, emotional manipulation and threats have worked well for the MEA in the past. Let’s hope that this time the public is ready for all the melodrama and knows how to respond: with a gentle but firm "no." Because if there’s one thing that can be said with confidence, it is that if the state "invests" — her word, not mine — any more funds in public schools without thorough reforms of labor relations and school governance first, little of that money will go to the children. The MEA’s corps of lobbyists, bargainers and political activists will immediately go to work using their legal prerogatives to redirect the money to their own purposes.

It’s not hard to figure out what Salters' real agenda is here: The MEA would benefit if a bill to salvage the Michigan Public Schools Employee Retirement System were to make its way through the state Legislature. MPSERS, a defined-benefit pension plan, is expensive and likely to become even more so. School districts are already obligated to pay 17 percent of their payroll into MPSERS, and that percentage is likely to rise to 19 percent. Charter schools, like most private-sector employers, tend to have their employers in defined-contribution programs such as 401(k) plans. Using defined contribution plans allows teachers to take charge of their own retirement planning and allows charter schools more flexibility to put dollars into classrooms. The MEA would love to see charter schools pushed into MPSERS because doing so would take away a big competitive advantage that charter schools currently have.

The MEA would also like to protect its favored health-care provider, MESSA. MESSA premiums are set to go up by an average of 13 percent statewide in the 2010-11 school year. One district is facing a 24 percent hike in its health care premiums. Overall MESSA premium hikes could cost taxpayers $150 million. And MEA locals have been known to pitch fits and even threaten strikes when school districts look at less expensive alternatives.

When it comes to actually teaching children, Michigan public schools have all they really need. Michigan's taxpayers have been quite generous with public schools, with per-student funding (corrected for inflation) nearly quadrupling since 1960, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

We have yet to see how Michigan will respond to Ms. Salters' guilt trip, but the ideal response would be something like this:

Now, we all know that the public schools have all the money they need to educate children. Perhaps if you were a little more reasonable about pensions you’d have more. Or maybe if you were a little bit more flexible about health care, you wouldn’t have the problems you have now — there are plenty of good health care providers aside from MESSA. But nobody gets their way all the time. We’ve given you plenty of money, and we can’t afford to give you any more. At this point, if children aren’t getting a good education, it’s because you’re being stubborn and selfish. Is that really what you want?

Then we brace ourselves for more drama, because the MEA isn’t going to back down quietly.