(This commentary is an edited version of an Op-Ed that appeared in The Detroit News on Feb. 4, 2010.)

There was something just a bit sad as Michigan's Legislature, Board of Education and school districts scrambled to make reforms in order to qualify for federal "Race to the Top" funds. It wasn't just that the state is in dire economic shape; the really distressing fact was the extent to which the state's drive for school reform could be stalled by an intransigent union.

In a Jan. 17 editorial, The Detroit News stated "Michigan Shirks." The sentiment was understandable, but not exactly correct. The Legislature worked hard, overcoming deep partisan and philosophical divisions, to produce a bill that, while far from ideal, made some meaningful steps toward reform. The resulting law set up a process for overhauling failing schools, going so far as to allow the state to take over the worst schools. The Legislature established alternative certification criteria for teachers and expanded opportunities for the creation of charter schools. The law also assigned to local school boards the task of creating teacher evaluations that include student performance on standardized tests and merit pay criteria under which teachers will be paid according to how well they teach. 

The reform package took some steps in the right direction: a little more accountability, a little more choice. And it was a reform package that had support across Michigan's political spectrum, passed by a Republican Senate, Democratic-controlled House and signed by a Democratic governor. The measures were something that all the major players in state politics could agree to. Well, all but one.

For the Michigan Education Association, this was an outcome to be resisted with all means at their disposal — and those means are formidable. Under the state's collective bargaining law, any major change in teachers working conditions — even those that have across-the-board support from the state's elected officials — must be negotiated with the MEA and its affiliates, making it harder for the state to make reforms and secure a share of the federal funds. When it comes to education, Lansing proposes, the MEA disposes.

In Michigan, the Public Employment Relations Act forces local governments and school districts to bargain with unions over wages and conditions of employment. Because the work of government employees is essentially the work of government, and the list of subjects that governments are expected to bargain over is broad, PERA gives unions an effective veto power over what should be policy decisions — like applying for Race to the Top funds and reforming schools to improve the state's chances. The MEA's powers under PERA are why it is so difficult for the state to change its schools even when there is a broad, bipartisan consensus that change is desirable.

Michigan is not the only state with this problem. Though Michigan government employee unions are among the strongest in the nation, 29 states have laws that are at least comparable to PERA. Because of this, when the Department of Education issued its rules for Race to the Top, it asked for states to submit Memoranda of Understanding signed by local school administrations and teachers' representatives. Before divvying up the money, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to know that unions with the power to do so will not reject reforms. In states like North Carolina, where teachers unions do not wield a veto power, the agreements have been much easier to secure, giving that state an advantage over Michigan in the competition for federal dollars.

This is an intolerable situation. When the public clearly supports reforms, unions like the MEA should not be in a position to approve or disapprove. Workers should have a right to join a labor organization, but no government employee union should ever be in a position to thwart the will of the people of Michigan.

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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.