Mackinac Center, Part of the National Koch Brothers Pension Attack

The Mackinac Center was created in 1987 in the image of the Heritage Foundation. Since then, thanks in large part to the Center’s Think Tank School, the Center has been duplicated in all but one state. And at last count, 67 other countries.

This sort of cloning extends to the work product of each think tank. Christopher Derry, who founded Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute after graduating from the Mackinac school, described the “research” he recycles from other right wing think tanks:


Not only do these “propaganda mills” regurgitate each other’s work, they have a remarkable unity to the issues they pursue, which is directly related to the business interests of the corporations and foundations that fund them.

This is clear from the hair-on-fire headlines on view across the nation regarding public pensions:

Illinois Policy
Understanding Illinois’ Massive, Government-Worker Pension Crisis

State Pension Funds Fall Off a Cliff

Show-Me Institute (Missouri)
Public Employee Pensions in Missouri: A Looming Crisis

The Bluegrass Institute (Kentucky)
Pension Grinch likely to pilfer more from taxpayers

The Manhattan Institute (New York)
The Public Pension Problem: It’s Much Worse Than It Appears

Commonwealth Foundation (Pennsylvania)
Union Leaders Kill Critical Pension Reform at Members’ and Taxpayers’ Expense

The Heartland Institute (Illinois)
Massive Public Pension Liabilities Loom in Jacksonville

Yankee Institute (Connecticut)
Born Broke: Our pension debt problem

PR HandThe Reason Foundation in California serves as policy clearinghouse for other think tanks, to whom the smaller ones often contract out this work.

In 2014 Reason published a Pension Reform Handbook, which provides sage advice for right wing think tanks everywhere hoping to end defined benefit pensions.

A critical part of a successful campaign to close state pension systems is to work the media, something think tanks like the Mackinac Center have become increasingly adept at:


The handbook includes advice on how to get union members to help you kill their own pensions:

…you want them to know that it is your intention to remove the ability for politicians to play games with or raid their pension funds so that the jurisdiction never has to contemplate serious cuts to their retirement plans. You want to put them in control of their retirement.

One of its pieces suggests part of the solution requires that we all work longer:

The fact that people are living longer, healthier lives, however, means that they are able to contribute to the workforce—with greater wisdom and patience—later in life.

Sprinkled throughout these sources are the arguments we hear every day in the current Michigan pension fight.

Mercatus Center, George Mason University, (Funded by the Koch brothers) “…the state should close the current defined benefit plan to new workers and expand the existing defined contribution plans for all new state and local workers.”

Arnold Foundation: “The problem stems from the fact that many governments have failed to make the annual required contribution to their pension system. This chronic underfunding has caused the debt to increase dramatically.”

But the real bottom line comes from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation:

Defined-Contribution or 401k plans should be used since they place the investment risk and reward on the public employee

This coordinated nationwide think tank assault on public employee pensions would have us believe each franchise has on its own discovered a growing threat to the welfare of union members it pretends to care so much about. It is, in fact, a coordinated attempt to kill off yet another benefit of union membership in the hope that members will question their return on dues dollars.

This is the phase of the long-term drive to lower union membership beyond the point where school staff, through their unions, have the resources to resist the privatization of public education.

Pension Fight Begins Now—Take Action Today!

We still don’t know the substance of a coming attack on the school employee pension system, but we know it’s coming – and we’ve also learned Republican leaders plan to move quickly once legislation is introduced.
That means we need to be quicker.

Click this link right now, to get up to speed on everything you need to know and to access all the tools you need to take action.  

The Mackinac Center’s Online School Blind Spot

A recent communique from the Mackinac Center, Governor’s Cyber School Cuts Don’t Add Up, complained about a surprisingly progressive feature of Governor Snyder’s state budget proposal: pay online schools less for each of their students than neighborhood public schools get.

The reasoning is obvious (to most people): neighborhood public schools have costs that electronic schools don’t. Buildings for instance. And utilities.

And a rational number of teachers. As The Truth About K12, Inc. shows, the sky is the limit on teacher/student ratios at cyber schools:


K12 raio

This NPR report established that when a school, almost always a charter school, approaches K12, Inc. to provide its curriculum, the amount it pays varies with the student/teacher ratio. Which makes it pretty easy to make money when you employ so few teachers. Even with the smaller foundation grant proposed by Snyder.

This kind of performance data on cyber schools isn’t hard to find. If you’re really looking for it. For example, the Great Lakes Center just issued its yearly review of the research on online school quality. It said:

Policymakers slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and the size
of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have
been identified and addressed.

The Mackinac Center argument against the Snyder proposal is that neighborhood public schools can pay many of their expenses through local bond proposals, which cyber charters can’t do. Naturally, the Center ignores the major staffing differences between online schools and normal public schools and pretends the only difference is buildings.

Probably knowing that the local funding argument is thin, it moves on to rave about just how great online schools are, and points, as proof, to one of its own studies. Not surprisingly (especially if you remember that one of its board members founded a major charter school chain) its study found that charter schools are really great: “five of the seven cyber schools serving high schoolers performed on level with most of their peers.”

What, exactly does “performed on level” mean? Or “with most of their peers?” Most? Not exactly scientific language.

But it can’t stop. It says:


The Mackinac Center gave Connections Academy an A. Given its murky methodology, this isn’t too shocking.  Clearly, the Mackinac Center approach doesn’t include facts that most people would consider important. Like graduation and drop out rates.

We think they’re important:


Notice that all of the state’s cyber charter schools fall behind the state average for both dropout and graduation rate. Also notice that the state dropout rate is 8.9%, Connections Academy, 24.3%. The state graduation rate is 79.7%, Connections, 55.9%. Keep in mind that both state averages include all of the listed online school rates, and are therefore reduced by them.

All of this data is available to anyone with a computer. That is, a computer and an interest in actual facts.


Capitol Rumors Point to a Coming Pension Attack

From Capitol Comments:

MEA members need to be ready for another pension battle. Based on intel picked up around Lansing, we believe the state Senate may be on the verge of kicking off its latest effort to move newly-hired school employees to a 401(k)-type retirement system – similar to the threat we successfully beat back in last year’s lame duck session.

Sometimes we gather legislation information through sources other than bills being introduced. Last week, Business Leaders for Michigan issued a report that garnered media attention around the state saying all new hires at school districts should be forced into a 401(k)-type system. Then an article about the state budget appeared that talked about how the House and Senate are proposing cuts that spend less than the amount Gov. Rick Snyder proposed earlier this year. Next, in another article Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) says moving new hires to a defined contribution system is still his priority.

Read between the lines, listen to the rumors flying around the Capitol, and it’s pretty clear something is coming.

Right now, although there is no legislation introduced, we believe their plan would follow last year’s proposal for new hires to go into a defined contribution system, instead of the hybrid system implemented in 2011 (which Gov. Snyder supports). This change would cost the state at least $500 million for the first year – and as much as $1.6 to $3.8 billion over the next five years. The Senate has proposed a cut of $275 million from Snyder’s budget recommendations, which they could use to help pay for that $500 million this year, perhaps pulling the rest of the money from the state’s rainy day fund.

Right now, this is all based on rumor, media coverage and other intel. Please stay tuned to Capitol Comments and MEA’s Facebook page for more information as we learn more. In the meantime, get ready to make phone calls and emails – we will need your help to stop this latest attack on school employee pensions, which ignores the growing teacher shortage and the crumbling pay and benefits contributing to the problem.

Life without MEA? See it now – in Wisconsin

Download PDF version

MEA is the only organization with enough people behind it to resist the move to cash in on the $14 billion a year spent on public schools. This is why we’ve been under attack for so long: the corporations behind the Mackinac Center want us out of the way so they can monetize the public schools through vouchers and on-line schools.

Right to Work was part of this as was banning payroll dues deduction, but the death blow in other states has been outlawing collective bargaining itself. In Wisconsin, membership fell 60% when Gov. Scott Walker banned collective bargaining in 2011.

When bargaining is outlawed, it is sometimes replaced by an institutionalized version of collective begging, usually called “Meet and Confer.” Here’s a Meet and Confer notice from a Texas school district website:

Meet Confer

Meet and Confer is usually formalized into scheduled meetings, as they are in Janesville, Wisconsin:


5 minutes set aside for listening to Health and Dental coverage concerns.

In Wisconsin, the repeal of the collective bargaining law left just one subject bargainable: wages, and even then only up to an inflationary increase. As a result, contracts in that state can run a single page:

Wisc Contract

There are currently 300 schools, mostly religious, that receive vouchers in Wisconsin. Voucher programs were expanded in 2011 after the bargaining ban took effect and funding for them is expected to grow.

The lesson here is that the long range well-being of your students, your schools and your career depend on resisting the push to weaken your union. Remain an active member. Tell this story.  Follow MEAMatters on  Facebook and Twitter. Friend MEA on Facebook and on Twitter.

And get politically active. Activism is growing every day. Sign up for MEA’s Capitol Comments. When the call comes to fight legislation, make the call and write the letter. In the next election cycle, knock doors and make phone calls.

Join the fight to keep public schools public.

Making Vouchers Sound Mainstream

The Mackinac Center has for years tried to divert public funds to private and religious schools. In 2000, their attempt to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow vouchers went down in a landslide: 31-69. That must have stung, given that the enormous amounts spent to pass it were the highest ever:

prop 1.jpg

Since then, the Center’s been pushing Universal Tuition Tax Credits, a phrase that doesn’t sound anything like vouchers, which they evidently hope will avoid memories of that last election blowout and is probably designed provide a legal argument that the constitutional ban doesn’t apply. After all, it’s not the state that’s sending money to religious schools, it’s sending it to taxpayers after they’ve already spent it at private schools. It’s sort of a money laundered voucher scheme that benefits from confusion with the tuition tax credits already allowed for higher education expenses.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has taken a similar tack that assumes no constitutional prohibition. It pushes Education Savings Accounts. Again, this plan benefits from the confusion with ESA’s already allowed by the IRS, which are essentially a Roth IRA for parents to save for education expenses. In the ALEC version, K-12 foundation (per student) grants are diverted to these savings accounts that parents would use for private schools.

That it’s a tuition check by another name is the whole point:

ALEC and its allies have additionally sought to move away from the term “vouchers” and towards “education savings accounts,” even though the impact is ultimately the same: to shift taxpayer funds from public schools to private or religious institutions.

Versions of the ALEC Education Savings Account Act were introduced in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—in 2015. The bill subtracts funds directly from state school aid and deposits these funds into savings accounts for low-income students that can be used to pay private school expenses.

The Heritage Foundation  is pushing DOE Secretary Betsy Devos to implement ESA’s for military-connected and Native American children. Devos’ own American Federation for Children offers model legislation for autistic, special needs and foster care children, as well as veterans, active military, low- and middle-income families.

Why all these half steps?

This is the camel’s nose under the tent technique. Provide money to the most deprived, move the center of what’s normal to the right and then push an equity argument to expand coverage to everyone. The Mackinac Center has developed an entire political theory around this technique: the Overton Window.

The term Overton Window was coined by former Mackinac Center VP Joe Overton, who observed that new policies, properly framed, can make previously radical ideas seem reasonable.


Now a rallying cry for the extreme right, as well as an awful book by Glen Beck, the Overton Window has been given credit for the assent of Donald Trump. In that analysis, there are three steps to shifting the window of public policy:

  1. Give people an enemy.
  2. Make passive allies active.
  3. Use popular sentiments to justify radical shifts.

But from the Mackinac Center’s perspective, the Window is mostly about shifting education policy. Enact marginally mainstream polices in order to drag what you really want into the acceptable range.

Over Fox

And by doing this, you get, step by step, to your ultimate goal.

Over Fox 2.jpg

The Mackinac Center Lays the Groundwork for Privatizing Community Colleges

The elevation of Betsy Devos has made it plain to the rest of the nation that the agenda of corporations driving the Republican party is to privatize K-12 schools. $14 billion in Michigan alone is pretty tempting.

The Devos funded Mackinac Center has always made it plain that universities should meet the same fate. One of its very first positions was to privatize the University of Michigan. But it’s only now that we learn of their intention to push the monitizing of community colleges.


Using the pejorative “subsidies” in the place of appropriations, the Center employs the twisted logic that if community colleges had seen the low state funding that universities received, the state could afford a tax cut, ignoring the skyrocketing tuition costs at these schools.

But what about the certain increase in community college tuition that would result? No problem:

To the extent that it makes sense at all, it makes sense for the people who seek the training to pay for it themselves, and if not them, their employers.

And there you have it: the beginning of the argument that these schools should be private. You have to wonder how disconnected a person would have to be to not know the difficulty families have in paying college tuition. To argue it should be higher, you’d have to be, what, a billionaire?

Working to Get Betsy That Nomination: A Case Study in Hypocrisy

In an astonishing piece of kettle-calling, the Mackinac Center counters the rising opposition to the Betsy Devos Department of Education nomination by alleging that her opponents are motivated by campaign contributions. Living in the right wing echo chamber, its understandable that the Center is deaf to the obvious truth: the Center supports the Devos nomination because she and her family bankroll their operations. post-8794-1403702267

Ask a conservative think tank why it hides its funders, and you’ll get the preposterous argument that revealing their names will put their contributors in physical danger. The Devos’ funding role has never been admitted by the Center; it’s only come to light thanks to the work of its opponents, including the MEA.

In fact, none of the Mackinac Center’s pieces advocating for the Devos nomination admit to her role in the Center’s finances.

The real motive behind hiding their financiers is to avoid exposing the line that would be drawn from the money it receives to the conclusions reached by its “research.” A line, in this case obvious to the rest of us, that connects Betsy Devos to its work to get her nominated.

Like the President’s tax returns, there may be other reasons to keep these secrets: some think tanks appear to be hiding money from foreign governments.


Given the golden opportunity of seeing their leader installed in a position that could advance public school privatization in ways they could only dream of months ago, its no small wonder they fail to notice their own projection.

The Mackinac Center, at its essence, is anti-union. It exists to advance this cause on behalf of its funders, which, since it’s earliest days included the Devos family.

As the Center’s President Joe Lehman said: “The strategic idea we had in mind was defunding unions.” The Mackinac Center ally and Director of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, Scott Hagerstrom was even more direct: “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation, but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.”

war2The Center’s cracker jack research reveals a large number of Democratic candidatess receiving an MEA endorsement. After the 2011-12 tsunami of laws designed to weaken unions, all sponsored by Republicans, passing with overwhelming Republican votes, and signed by Governor Snyder, it’s understandable (to the rest of us) that MEA members struggle to find Republicans who actually support public schools. Add to that the Devos effect on the Republican caucus.

So the chain of causality it alleges illustrates its own business model: Devos wants into the Trump administration, the Devos family finances the Center’s operations, so the Center attacks the nomination’s opponents.

The MEA stance on Devos is clear, as are its funders. The difference is, the MEA’s funders, its members, are out there in the open; the Mackinac Center’s financiers are still in hiding.

Secret Bill, Secret Language, $400 Million School Cut

It’s (much too) common during lame duck for the legislature to use what is known as a “vehicle bill” to move legislation faster. Which is of course, the whole point to having a lame duck session.


Vehicle bills are innocuous bills sitting on a shelf somewhere, ignored for lack  of support, but that offer a significant constitutional advantage: they’ve been on that shelf for more than 5 days. And because the Michigan Constitution requires every bill must “be in the possession” of each house for at least 5 days, these sleeping bills offer a constitutional short cut.

Just substitute the language you want in place of the bill’s text, and presto! you have a bill ready to send to the Senate! (or to the House if its a Senate bill). No need to wait 5 days

That’s what’s happening right now, a vehicle bill is being rewritten to institute — what fewer and fewer people are believing — is a “tax refund technical fix.” This rewriting of how tax refunds are made will cost schools up to $400 million.

You can find how much it will cost your school district on this spreadsheet.

In fact, at this writing, this change has no bill number, no specific language to share. It’s still a secret and will be until the time comes to run the vehicle bill.

The pension attack was stalled in very large part because of the thousands of member contacts made to the lawmakers. Legislators find out what a bill will really do to their own schools, from people who are in a position to actually know, and votes change.

We need this to happen again. Make a quick call, write a simple email and make a difference. For you, and for the kids you serve.

URGENT – Call lawmakers to stop $400M hit to school funding

As MEA reported last week, a new threat has come up in lame duck which could cost schools more than $400 million next year.
Being billed as a “technical fix” to how tax refunds are paid, this legislation (which has yet to be formally introduced) would use a back-door way to drain school dollars to help pay for tax refunds. Right now, if you get a tax refund, it is paid from General Fund dollars only — the School Aid Fund has been protected from being used for this purpose. This is a way to raid the SAF and take money from our kids without it being obvious. The per district cost would be $273 per student next year alone!


Pressure is mounting by legislative leaders on State Representatives to pass this in lame duck. We need to contact State Representatives immediately and urge them to oppose this cash grab from our students. Lame duck isn’t the time to address tax policy, and lawmakers should not sneak through huge cuts to school funding. 


To help with your lobbying, see what this new School Aid Fund raid would cost your district in this MEA breakdown of the damage. 


Why make this change? Just like when lawmakers started to pay for higher education out of the School Aid funds meant for K-12 schools, they want to tap into school funding to pay for other things. The GOP agenda of aggressive tax breaks has left the state cash-strapped and some lawmakers see the SAF as an attractive pot of money. Please contact lawmakers today to stop this cash grab!