A package of bills for reforming failing schools that was recently introduced by Rep. Timothy Melton, D-West Bloomfield, calls to mind two old sayings, both involving travel and — coincidentally — China. The first is an ancient one attributed to Lao Tzu: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The second, of more recent origin, is to the effect that only Nixon can go there.

Among the more notable features of Melton's package is that in the process of turning around a failed school, administrators will be allowed to set aside some of the terms of collective bargaining agreements, loosening the control that teachers union officials hold. Whether Melton can take failed schools where they need to go remains to be seen — his bill will ultimately face strong opposition from teachers unions in any event. But if Melton's reform is only a step on what should be a much longer journey, at least it's a step in the right direction.

Melton's plan would create a School Reform/Redesign Officer (RRO), who will be empowered to designate schools that fail to meet minimal performance standards for four straight years as failing schools. The RRO is then expected to do one of two things: take over control of the school outright, or reach an agreement with the local school board on a plan to overhaul the school's operations. Either course of action opens up the possibility that collective bargaining agreements will be reopened, with staff reassigned and work rules rendered inoperative.

As written, this bill does not go anywhere near as far as it should: the decision to declare a school to have failed lies with the RRO. There is no guarantee that the contract revision rules will ever be invoked. And even if they are, the power to revise contracts is limited: Staff can be reassigned, but not let go, and incompetent teachers will continue to teach — if that's really the right word for it. Salary structures cannot be touched, so there will be no financial incentives for bad teachers to get better.

The process of removing a teacher, even for those who have been convicted of crimes, is time-consuming and expensive, to the point where the process is rarely used for teachers who are merely incompetent. Instead, poor teachers are reassigned continuously in a process that is described as "passing the trash" or "the dance of the lemons." To the extent that the reassignment provisions of the proposed law are ever implemented, the main effect will be more lemons on the dance floor.

A thorough response to the problem of union contracts and their contribution to failing schools would begin with the suspension of collective bargaining agreements. When a school fails to meet minimal standards for four years straight, what is needed is not a tweak but a total revamping. Abolishing collective bargaining agreements would allow for the sort of transformation that is needed; the failed school's more incompetent teachers would still have the protections of tenure, but contract terms would no longer apply, making it more economical, though not easy, to let go of the plainly incompetent. With the rigid salary schedule removed, remaining teachers could be disciplined or rewarded by incentive pay. Innovative and effective curricula can be used without the union's approval. And because the termination of collective bargaining agreements would have the effect of eliminating mandatory teachers union dues, unions would have an incentive not to allow schools to fail in the first place.

But while his idea does not go as far as it should, Melton has identified union contracts as a contributing factor in failing schools and proposes something be done to ameliorate the problem. And because Melton is a Democrat and the Michigan Education Association has a large stake in that party's control of the Legislature, the MEA is forced to treat the proposal respectfully. Given some room for a rational debate, the idea that collective bargaining has become an obstacle to the delivery of quality public education may have a chance to take root in the discussion of Melton's bills. It's a small step toward a distant destination, but Melton deserves credit for suggesting that we take it.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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