Classes are finally back in session in Ypsilanti and Detroit, where deals this week ended bitter teacher strikes. The root causes that led instructors at Eastern Michigan University and in the Detroit Public Schools to walk out, however, remain unresolved. The state’s dysfunctional means of funding its K-12 schools and its public universities will inevitably lead to more conflicts unless the state remedies its chronic underinvestment in education.

Sarah Royce

The specific issues that led to strikes at Eastern and in Detroit vary. Teachers in Detroit, who frequently have to use their own money to purchase school supplies in the underfunded and mismanaged district, were already paid less than teachers in most suburban districts and refused to accept further pay cuts. Professors at Eastern, meanwhile, were upset by salaries well below the median for public universities in Michigan; the school’s newspaper, the Eastern Echo, reports that many young faculty have found they can make more teaching at Washtenaw Community College.

The underlying cause in both cases, however, is the same – the tension that is all but inevitable between instructors and administrators trying to run a school system with hardly sufficient resources.

The passage of Proposal A in 1994, which shifted much K-12 funding to a state per-pupil grant, has failed to level out fully the inequalities in school funding between districts in richer and poorer areas. It did, however, restrict districts from raising many funds locally, leading even many affluent districts to experience fiscal crises in recent years. Public universities, meanwhile, have seen nervous legislators cope with declining state revenues by slicing away at state appropriations for higher education.

School strikes are always unfortunate; children and young adults seeking an education shouldn’t have to suffer for the public’s unwillingness to support schools, or for the inability of administrators and teacher’s unions to divide amicably the crumbs the taxpayers toss them. Should the state’s neglect of public education continue, however, more strikes are all but inevitable: Faculty at Oakland Community College requested state mediation after their contract expired Aug. 31, and more than 65 percent of teachers in the Trenton Public Schools called in sick Wednesday after working without a contract since 2005.

With the recent announcement of even more job cuts by the Ford Motor Company, it’s painfully clear that manufacturing is unlikely to ever lead Michigan back to prosperity. A healthier state economy will rely largely on jobs generated in the so-called “knowledge economy” – and attracting those positions will require an educated workforce. It’s difficult to see, however, how the state can even begin to change its image as an aging Rust Belt relic until it gets more serious about supporting its public schools.

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