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Michigan Democrat: Teacher Union Leaders Are 'Disconnected'

Outgoing member of Michigan House to join school reform group

Michigan Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills

Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, ranking Democrat on the state House Education Committee, said this week that the leaders of Michigan's teacher unions aren't on the same page with the members they're supposed to represent.

 “I would say union leadership is disconnected from their members,” Melton responded when asked to describe the current status of Michigan's teacher unions. “Many of the teachers are in agreement with the reforms the Legislature has been making, such as changes to teacher tenure and so on.

 “Often, the union leaders seem more concerned about preservation than they are about the teachers or the students,” Melton continued. “The idea of doing the best we can for the students sometimes seems to get lost.”

Melton announced this week that he is resigning from the Legislature to become national legislative director for Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst. Rhee, an Ann Arbor native and former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., started StudentsFirst in 2010 as a nonprofit organization that promotes education reforms. It is already on the "political enemies" list of teacher unions at the national level.

As a Democratic lawmaker advocating for education reforms, Melton has been a thorn in the side of Michigan's teacher unions. He was chair of the House Education Committee from 2007 to 2010.

A few weeks ago, Melton was prepping to run for Congress. Now, however, he says he and his family are heading to California, where he'll be based for his new job. Capitol Confidential interviewed him via telephone Wednesday morning. The following are excerpts from that interview.

CC. As a Democratic lawmaker, what was it like to buck the unions?

“It's been difficult. Sometimes it has seemed like the walls were closing in on me. But I believed what I was doing was the right thing. So, although when I was sitting in caucus it often seemed like the walls were closing in, it was nice to be able to sleep well at night.

“Unfortunately the message the Democrats seem to keep sending out on education is that the status quo is alright. But it's not. We need reforms. There may be disagreement on which reforms and how best to do them, but it's clear that the status quo isn't working.

“Our education system is not producing enough high quality students, not only as a state, but as a nation. We need to fix it. We can't afford to go along with the status quo. We need to have reforms. Unfortunately, by going along with the union leaders on education, the Democrats have been presenting a message that they're for the status quo and against needed reforms.”

CC. Why do you still consider yourself to be a Democrat?

“I look at it this way: I'm pushing for equal opportunity. I'm looking out for kids and helping them prepare for their futures. When I support education reforms, the unions claim I'm being anti-teacher or anti-student. To me, it's just the opposite. My votes for education reforms are progressive votes. Those who oppose the reforms aren't being progressive, they're doing just the opposite.

“On most things outside of education I've voted with my caucus. But the Democrats have dropped the ball on education by going along with the unions. We're not living in the 1970s or 1980s anymore. As a Democrat I'm trying to help people who otherwise can't provide for themselves. Overall, it's the Democrats who are on the wrong side of that line when it comes to education issues. We should be the ones who are pushing these reforms instead of standing in the way.”

CC. It's been said that a good teacher is always underpaid and a poorly performing teacher is always overpaid. Is there any way to get around this concept?

“Maybe there's a way. I think we've done some adjustments that start to address that; like changing the LIFO (Last In First Out) system (that favored teacher seniority over performance). We're not where we want to be yet when it comes to evaluating teacher performance.

“Studies show that the teacher is the single most important component of education. Finding ways to accurately evaluate their performance is vitally important. It's a key step that we have to take. It's the sort of thing we'll continue working on at 'StudentsFirst.' We can't continue to treat all teachers as if they were all equally effective. There's too much at stake.”

CC. How about a market approach, where if there's a great science teacher in Muskegon students across the state could “sit in” on his classes over the Internet?

“That kind of cutting edge technology is coming and it's coming faster than most people realize. Unfortunately, for whatever the reason, the unions have positioned themselves as being mostly opposed to those changes. But that technology and innovation already exists. The only question is how, and how quickly, can we implement it.”

CC. You were preparing to run for Congress. What changed your mind?

“The tea leaves just didn't pan out. I had a road map to victory in the 14th (Congressional District), where I was going to run against U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit). I brought in a lot of people who researched the district, checking everything out. The results were that I had a lot of potential there. But then the road map evaporated. U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit) was moving into the district. Then there was the possibility of U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), as well.

“For me to win I would have been banking on doing well in Oakland County and Grosse Pointe. The potential dynamics changed, my road map evaporated. I didn't want to run just for the sake of running. Clarke hasn't been in Congress long. I think he deserves a chance to go back.”

CC. What would you consider to be the top education reform you'd like to see accomplished in Michigan?

“That's a difficult question. I guess I'd have to say that I'd like to see the promise zones (local place-based scholarship programs) expanded. I've seen how they've changed the attitudes of kids in Pontiac and Auburn Hills.

“Along with that, I would like to see us get more into the concept of K-16, or even better, PreK-16. (Thinking of education as preschool through college). I think that's something we really need. All jobs don't require a college degree, but the really great jobs out there will require that degree. We've got to support an approach to education that can really have students ready for the jobs of the future.

“What's frustrating is that we know how to do it. We know we have to start at the preschool level. That has to be an area of huge focus.”

 CC. Is the idea of K-12 competing for appropriations with higher education a turf war?

“No, I wouldn't say that. I think the use of School Aid Fund dollars (by Gov. Rick Snyder) for colleges was a budgeting gimmick. It was a way of doing the budget that would help pay for the tax break for businesses."

CC. The top 10 states in per-pupil spending don't fare very well in academic achievement rankings. Is there too much emphasis on how much we spend on education and not enough on how it gets spent?

“Yes and no. Having more money will always allow you to do more things, but it makes a big difference how you spend it. What we've seen in Michigan is that, even though we spend a relatively large amount of money on education, a lot of it doesn't reach the classrooms. For instance, look at all the money we're having to use to pay for MPSERS (teacher retirement benefits).

 “I would say that money is important, but how you use it makes all the difference. I mean here in Michigan we have schools spending $12,000 per student and there are private schools only spending $5,500, but sending a higher percentage of their students on to college. That's why we need to focus on innovations. That's what I'm hoping I can continue to work toward at my new job."

CC. Can we reach a point where we tailor our education system to the student, instead of tailoring the students to the system?

“I think there is a pathway to that happening. If you sit in on our cyber-schools you'd see it starting. Right now our education system has brilliant students who are held back because their teachers have to slow up for other students. At the same time, we have teachers who can't give students the time they need to catch up.

 “That's where innovations like the cyber-schools can potentially make all the difference. Kids aren't made from cookie cutters. They're not all alike and their situations back home aren't all the same. When you see these kids watching cyber-classes, you see how awake and aware they are. For some it may be better at 6 a.m., for others it might be better in the evening. We have to get away from the cookie-cutter approach. I believe technology is going to have a lot to do with how we get away from it.

 “I think we need to be bold. Will everything we try always work out? No. But we need to be up there swinging. We need to swing for the seats, and if we strike out sometimes, we just need to go up there and keep trying.”

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