CHELSEA — As hundreds of students returned to school for the start of a new year on Tuesday, Democrats across western Washtenaw County were joined by a crowd of eight supporters calling on Republicans to restore funding to the state's public schools.
Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, , was joined by state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and , candidate for Michigan's 55th District during a rally outside of Beach Middle School in Chelsea.
"As children around the state start a new school year, they deserve to get the best education possible," Driskell said.
Driskell said as a mother, she is frustrated that the House has cut school funding by more than $1 billion since 2011.
"These deep cuts have resulted in school closings, massive teacher layoffs, cuts to transportation services, and a lack of basic school supplies, such as textbooks," she said.
Zemke said he believes education reform is vital to Michigan's economic development.
"If we're serious about Michigan's economic future and solving the problems we've got, then we need to make investing in education a priority," Zemke said.
The automotive engineer said if elected, he would work to restore the nearly $4 million in cuts to schools in the 55th District. Zemke said by 2014 Ann Arbor Schools will face a staggering deficit of $20 million, while Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan will both experience a 15 percent budget cut due to legislation passed earlier this year.
"Because of reduced funding to our schools, we will see larger class sizes, less individual attention to students, and more pay-to-play programs, making a balance to education less and less likely."
Zemke said he would like to see elected officials invest more in schools that offer programs to expose children to math and science, such as workshops offered by the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Coalition.
"This is something that touches my heart. The programs are project based and statistics have shown they are effective at exciting children about mathematics and science," he said.
Sandy Inman, a retired teacher from Chelsea School District, said the growing class sizes continues to be a problem for educators.
"I can remember a time when we never went over 24 (students)," she said. "Bigger class sizes mean you don't have the time to spend with individual students to give them the best educational experience they need."
She said the cuts also force teachers to purchase their own classroom supplies using their own money.
"I don't think (funding education) is a party issue. What bothers me is the people making decisions haven't set foot in a school or investigated the effects of the cuts. If our leaders took the time to visit the classrooms, they would see what is going on."
Rep. Irwin said House Democrats have been trying to pass legislation to increase funding to under-performing schools (House Bill 4987) as well as require schools managed by for-profit companies to release student achievement data (House Bill 5098).
"Republicans have not allowed for any serious discussion of the proposals and instead have opted to cut school funding at every opportunity," he said. "Budgets are a reflection of your values and priorities as a community. I ask the residents of Chelsea, Dexter, Saline and Manchester, what priority do you put on schools? Does your representative match that priority? Because I don't see that."
Irwin said while the Legislature did restore some funding to schools this year, it didn't go far enough.
Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township, told Ann Arbor.com he stands by the Legislature's funding cuts in order to help balance the state's budget.
"We were left with a $1.5 billion deficit from (former governor) Jennifer Granholm and all departments were cut," he said. "You always want to do more with public education, but we had an obligation to actually balance the budget."