State Rep. Margaret O’Brien urges ‘thoughtful’ investment in K-12 education

Last week, I wrote about my conversation with Kalamazoo school board president Patti Sholler-Barber, who strongly feels Michigan needs to up its spending on K-12 education.

The starting point for that conversation: State Rep. Margaret O’Brien’s comments at a recent public forum, in which O’Brien said she couldn’t get an answer to how much more money educators feel they need.

Sholler-Barber’s response, in essence, was that every district has different needs, so there’s not a single answer.

After that column came out, I had a chatty lunch with O’Brien to expand on her thoughts about the topic.

O’Brien, a Republican who represents Portage and western Kalamazoo County, said she agreed with much of what Sholler-Barber had to say — including the idea that it is time to start putting more money into the K-12 instruction.

O’Brien made the point the state has upped its K-12 spending since 2011, but that money has largely gone into stabilizing the state pension fund for school employees. While that’s a worthy and necessary expenditure, she said, it also hasn’t helped kids in the classroom.

Now it’s time to figure out how to invest in K-12 in ways that can best help students, O’Brien told me.

That means considering how to boost teacher compensation in way that attracts and retains the best and brightest into the profession, she said. How to lower class size in a way that maximizes the dollars spent. Create some pilot projects on a longer school year.

She also would like, she said, “less discussion about the politics and more about the kids. … I wish the politics could be taken out of it.”

Stepping away from the politics may be hard: O’Brien, who was first elected to the House in 2010, is now seeking the Republican nomination for the 20th District seat in the state Senate. Former state Rep. Lorence Wenke, a Republican, and state Rep. Sean McCann, a Democrat, also are running for the Senate seat.

The politics over K-12 education have been brutal in recent years. Many educators are still furious about Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision in 2011 to tap the State Education Fund to help balance the state budget. They also aren’t happy about the GOP’s expansion of charter and virtual schools, not to mention the right-to-work law, which is seen as a direct hit on teacher unions — all measures supported by O’Brien.

But in our conversation, O’Brien struck a bipartisan tone.

She defended the expansion of charter schools, saying parents want options for their children. As for the 2011 budget moves, O’Brien said it helped stabilize the state budget and create an environment for job growth — which is happening now.

But O’Brien also said she doesn’t reflexively back her GOP colleagues. She has reservations, for instance, about two GOP proposals currently on the table: One that would retain third-graders who fail to test as “proficient” on the state reading test and another to assign letters grades to schools and districts based on their performance.

The former proposal “isn’t founded in research,” O’Brien said, and the latter ignores the complexities of comparing schools that serve very different populations and have very different challenges.

O’Brien herself recently introduced House Bill 5223 to provide a statewide framework for teacher evaluations. O’Brien’s bill would allow districts to pick from one of four evaluations tools for teachers and clarifies other aspects of a 2011 bill mandating annual teacher evaluations.

O’Brien says the bill was a bipartisan effort — it was co-sponsored by Adam Zemke, an Ann Arbor Democrat — and reflects input of dozens of stakeholders, including teachers, superintendents and the all the major Michigan education organizations, including the unions.

“I totally agree with Patti that improving education needs to be a team effort,” O’Brien said.

Where she doesn’t agree with Sholler-Barber is the idea of raising taxes to generate more money for K-12 education. O’Brien maintains that Michigan’s improving economy already is increasing revenues.

As for how to spend the revenue increases, O’Brien said lawmakers need to be “thoughtful” about how to obtain the best bang for the buck. She applauds Snyder’s commitment to early childhood education and says she will continue to fight for money to maintain smaller class sizes in high-poverty elementary schools.

On the issue of teacher salaries, she said, “If we want to have the best and the brightest in education, we need salaries that reflect that,” especially in the math and sciences where young professionals can earn much more in other fields.

She said the Legislature should be guided by research and best-practices in deciding how to address K-12 issues.

“The best programs won’t be the cheapest,” she added. “And we all want a good education system. But taxpayers can’t afford unlimited costs.

“We need the research to guide us, and our decisions should be about what’s best for kids,” she added. “I’m not interested in getting into debates about the adults.”