Austin visited Marquette Monday to campaign as the Democratic nominee for re-election, which takes place Nov. 8, to the board of education.
With child poverty on the rise - increasing 23 percent in Michigan since 2006, according to Kids Count data released Monday - Austin said higher education and job training are the most important ways to lift families out of poverty.
"Poverty is a function of more people on the margins of employment," Austin said. "The most significant thing we can do is to help our people, more of our people, get a post-secondary higher education degree or credential. ... The pay-off from certificates, from associate's degrees, from bachelor's degrees, are all significant and there are jobs out there for people with the level of skill and experience to get them. Without a post-secondary education, you are at those margins."
Austin said education spurs economic growth, which is why in his time as board president, he has brought together stakeholders to lay a blueprint to join states with the best-educated populations.
The reason college tuition has skyrocketed is because the state used to pay for two-thirds the cost, he said.
That has dwindled to just 30 percent over the last 12 years, as a result of a Republican theology of austerity that claims government can't do anything right, Austin said.
"Northern has almost no choice but to ask students and parents to pay more of the cost," Austin said, "Because we cut taxes, because of austerity, because of things you see cropping up in Flint. You can't walk back investments in people, communities (and) education and then not expect the wheels to fall off at some point."
Austin referred to the recent Flint water crisis, where government's failure to enact corrosion control in lead pipes during a switch from Detroit water to the Flint River caused a spike in lead poisoning among children. Austin served as president of the Flint Roundtable early in his career.
Austin said Michigan lifting the cap on charter schools without ensuring they provide a quality education has caused a glut of for-profit companies that market education to families already frustrated by crumbling public schools.
This draws tax dollars away from public schools into public charter schools that tend to pay teachers less and have less public oversight, he said. He supports school choice and charter schools, he said - but there needs to be improvements to the funding model and stricter oversight.
"It's really been the last four to five years where you see this much more aggressive right-wing agenda to kind of privatize education and to cut everything," Austin said. "But it obviously is not working for our people and our communities. ... So I'm going to use this campaign to kind of have a referendum on what direction are we going in Michigan? Are we (going to) rebuild our communities and invest in our people and their opportunities through a great education or are we going to keep cutting the legs out from our people and our communities?"
Austin of Ann Arbor has a master's degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is director of the Michigan Economic Center, is a Brookings Institution non-resident senior fellow and lectures on the economy at the University of Michigan.
He was born and raised in the coal fields of West Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He met his wife in Michigan, where they decided to make their home.
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