Shortly before 10 a.m. this morning, I chatted with a couple of high school students from the Merrill Community Schools while outside the state Capitol. They were two of what appeared to be about 100 kids from this Saginaw-area district of 772 total pupils. The students had been brought to the Capitol for a rally sponsored by an organization calling itself "S.O.S.," which according to the group's website apparently stands for the far-reaching agenda "Save Our Students, Schools and State."
"S.O.S." members were in Lansing on behalf of the statewide public school establishment, demanding that politicians restore a $292 per-pupil K-12 budget cut enacted a few weeks ago both by the Legislature and through an executive order signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. For the Merrill district, which had been slated to receive a per-pupil foundation allowance of $7,316 in FY 2010, this cut represents a reduction of just 4 percent.
The gravity of a low single-digit percentage budget cut was somewhat lost on the kids from Merrill. As one speaker on the Capitol steps repeatedly chanted "save our schools!," I saw none of the Merrill students joining in. One waggish young man in the group did respond by chanting back "Ta-co-Bell! Ta-co-Bell!" (As the father of two teenage boys I found this unsurprising - demands for lunch do indeed start at least two hours before the crack of noon, especially when they're involved in projects not otherwise holding their attention.)
According to the two students I spoke with, roughly the entirety of the junior and senior classes were in Lansing today. The students told me that today's field trip - to attend what was effectively a public school establishment lobbying rally - was announced just last week. They also said that district buses brought them to Lansing. Otherwise, from what I can tell, they would have been in class today. (None of the students were complaining, however.)
Another speaker at the podium backed up this timing, saying effectively how happy he was to see so many people showing up on such short notice, and how the event had been brought together in less than two weeks. Somebody else at the microphone said how wonderful it was to see so many students there, naming in particular the kids from the nearby Grand Ledge Public Schools (who also took to the Capitol steps for a group picture of them holding signs supporting the rally.)
District officials from Merrill, speaking to the Saginaw News, appear to confirm that the trip was planned in direct response to the rally being announced.
And I counted three school buses from the Dearborn Public Schools that brought in what appeared to be about 100 parents - also carting along rally-supporting signage.
This all reminds me of the 3,000 teachers from the Detroit Public Schools who shut that district down one day in 2003 so that they could rally at the capitol and protest competition from charter schools (www.mackinac.org/5811.)
It's worth noting that the charter schools themselves held a capitol rally in September. Unlike today's event, they arrived on privately funded buses and according to the Grand Rapids Press their mission wasn't specifically more money from taxpayers but instead to urge "the lawmakers to pass legislation allowing new public school choices, turnaround for failing schools and support for alternate routes to teacher certification." This still did not prevent the Press from later editorializing that the event cut too closely to using school children as political props.
It may be possible to justify today's event as just a giant civics project, and that somehow showing children how to pressure lawmakers for more money is potentially within the educational mandate of these school districts. However, taxpayers in the aforementioned districts and elsewhere - and perhaps journalists - may question whether this passes the smell test of politicking on the public dime.
Put another way: Which Capitol demonstrations are a legitimate reason to use a school district's buses and students, and which are not? On short notice, would the kids from Merrill and the parents from Dearborn get carted over to Lansing on the district's school buses to attend a "Tea Party" or a pro-gun rally?
At a minimum, it would be an awfully convenient coincidence if all of this just happened to be taking place on the same day that the state's education establishment decided to declare a lobby day and show up to collectively visit their lawmakers and demand money.
It would be even more convenient, and a bit ironic, to find out that the taxpayers' money (to say nothing of their children) were being deployed for this same mission.
UPDATE 10:40 pm: Apparently I missed a kid or two. Tim Skubick found a younger one willing to offer up on camera that "I'm here because my school funding is really crappy."