News Story

MIRS: Where's Tea Party On K-12?

This is a repost from the May 4 edition of MIRS News, with their permission. MIRS is a subscription-only service read by state capitol insiders. For more information or subscription inquiries, see

By Jack Spencer (MIRS)

Where has the grassroots groundswell for budget cutting gone?

Six months after the 2010 elections, in which the conservative Tea Party movement played a heavy role, Michigan's Republicans are having trouble mustering votes to make a 3.5 percent cut to the K-12 budget. The cuts would bring Michigan's per-pupil spending rank drop from about 18th to 22nd nationally. It will fall about 26th to 30th when adjusted for regional costs.

Democrats and school districts have been very active in pressing their side of the issue in the news media and by contacting lawmakers directly. By contrast, the general sense has been that lawmakers are getting very little input on the issue from the kinds of grassroots conservatives that were so active last year.

Instead, lawmakers are getting deluged with phone calls, e-mails and letters from their local superintendents, school officials, teachers and parents, which has resulted in lawmakers backing away from the Governor's proposed $470-per-pupil spending cut.

"In regard to activity, I suspect we have been very spotty on that issue," Gene CLEM of the Southwest Michigan Tea Party Patriots. "We've kind of split off with some of our people focused on what's been happening at the federal level. The most involved we've gotten in terms of the state budget was back when it was announced. There was a lot of attention on the pension issue and tax reform, but on the school budget issue . . . not really very much."

Leon DROLET, director of the Taxpayers Alliance (MTA), told MIRS that issues like the state's K-12 budget aren't the kind that would generally attract Tea Party type conservatives.

"First, I'd say that most of them don't know what's going on with the School Aid budget unless they subscribe to MIRS or other publications that would give them that kind of inside scoop," Drolet said. "I think most of the Tea Party folks and other fiscal conservatives at the local level would be more likely to focus on what Rick SNYDER proposes in terms of the overall budget and taxes instead of what's going on with individual portions of the budget. I doubt very much that they would even know what Michigan's per pupil spending level is."

"They're very aware of the concept of the national debt," Drolet continued. "They're aware of the concept of bringing the public sector in line with the private sector. I have little doubt that they'd tend to be four-square behind the cuts. But they're not likely to know much about what's going on with a specific year's budget. They'd be more likely to find that out when they were getting ready to vote in next year's primaries."

Former lawmaker Jack HOOGENDYK of the Center Right Coalition of Michigan said he believes those commonly referred to as Tea Party conservatives aren't very aware of education spending issues.

"They're very aware of government spending, but not so much yet in connection with the realm of education," Hoogendyk said. "I think to some extent it goes back to an old idea that, 'Yet, we need to make schools more fiscally responsible and efficient, but my district is great.'"

Hoogendyk is currently working to get Right to Work legislation introduced in the Legislature (Se related story). MIRS asked him if it was reasonable to believe the state Legislature would pass a Right to Work measure, if it couldn't even support the Governor's K-12 cuts.

"I think it is," Hoogendyk said. "Grassroots conservatives just aren't that aware of budget specifics. They'd be far more likely to contact their Senators and Representatives on something like Right to Work."

Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill BALLENGER said it does not surprise him to hear that Tea Party activists have been less than active regarding the K-12 funding debate.

"You've got to remember, the driving force behind the Tea Party movement was deficit spending," Ballenger said. "On the state level, we are required to balance the budget. That difference alone accounts for a lot. What actually happened in 2010 was that Republicans in Michigan won because their elections were nationalized. The Tea Party people were never much involved with state and local issues."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.