(Note: A version of this commentary originally appeared in The Detroit News on Nov. 9, 2006.)
Proposal 5 lost on Nov. 7 by a healthy margin, but we mustn't be fooled into thinking this issue is over.
A majority of voters feel schools have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Now that the public and policymakers statewide are focused on the topic, Lansing lawmakers may never have a better opportunity to push for needed changes.
In fact, this is a historic opportunity for the new Democrat leadership in the state House and the Republican-led state Senate to show they are responsive to the message sent by voters. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, fresh off re-election, can be the bridge between the Michigan Education Association and those of us in education – including some in the K-16 Coalition – who recognize the need for reasonable reform.
Recent high school curriculum reforms had broad bipartisan support, and the same could happen for financial reform in education. But the window of opportunity is small. We must act quickly to secure the long-term financial health of Michigan's public education system.
Let's find a way to work together on the points which we all agree:
1. Retirement benefits for educators clearly need to be reformed. Even the K-16 Coalition agrees. We need to change the vesting period, and move from a traditional defined benefit pension plan to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan for new teachers. These plans are what most Michigan workers – and all other state employees – already have.
2. School boards have created an education system where spending outpaces inflation, and the culprit is health benefits. We need legislative reform to ensure that money intended for education actually makes its way to the classroom. Benefits represent nearly $1,700 per pupil. The state should cap the amount of education tax dollars per pupil that can be spent on health benefits. This would leave school boards free to negotiate with their unions to find the best health care possible that fits within the budget.
Both of these ideas have been discussed in the recent past, but stalled in the legislative process. The automakers and the United Auto Workers have started to work together to solve similar benefits issues, and this is an excellent opportunity for the Michigan Education Association school employees union to show courage and leadership by becoming part of the solution.
Lawmakers in Lansing must seize the moment and act on needed reforms while this is still fresh in everyone's mind.
Mr. Mike Reno is a trustee on the Rochester Community Schools Board of Education.