Welcome to Bizarro World

Actually, its the MEA's world. We just pay for it.

Former Libertarian Senate candidate and party chairman Michael Corliss is apparently confused by my recent commentary on the Michigan Education Association and its efforts to scuttle reform proposals passed by the state Legislature, so much so that he thinks he’s in “Bizarro World.” The confusion is understandable — politics does sometimes make for odd sleeping arrangements — but Corliss, an MEA member, misses the main point and in the process makes the very political and very leftish MEA into some sort of free-market, small-government ally, which is truly bizarre.

Other commentators have argued that the state should have passed up the Race to the Top program in its entirety, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry chose to do, in order to avoid turning over more control of local schools to Washington. That’s an entirely honorable and reasonable position; ordinarily, public schools should be controlled by local school boards. Or better yet, education should be controlled by parents as part of school choice programs, like charter schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits.

In a sane world, Washington would have little to do with education, but in our crazy world, there are tradeoffs. Unlike most other federal interventions in local schools, the Race to the Top program had some genuine positives, notably, the manner in which it encouraged districts to reward high-performing teachers and tied that to measurable student performance. Legitimate concerns about federalism aside, this is a genuine reform with real potential to improve schools. If a state is going to chase federal dollars, these are the dollars to chase.

Which is where the MEA comes in. The MEA has taken a firm position against Race to the Top and its teacher evaluation provisions, not out of a commitment to federalism or small government, but because it seeks to preserve its practices, especially the rigid salary schedules it prefers to bargain for. The MEA’s position is essentially that all teachers, the good and the mediocre (and sometimes the downright awful), must receive equal pay and benefits as well as airtight protection from competition.

The thing to remember is that markets really play little role here. These are government-run schools, paid for by tax dollars. If the taxpayers are going to pay for schools, they should control how those dollars are spent, either directly or through their elected officials. If the duly-elected officials reach a consensus that teachers in public schools should receive merit pay based on student performance, then it ought to be so. That federal dollars are involved complicates matters, but it doesn’t negate the basic principle that the public — not the unions — ought to control how government functions.

Corliss ends with a call for the public to “support the Michigan Education Association for not meekly handing over the keys to our schools to Granholm, House Speaker Andy Dillon, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, Obama or any other politician.” For all our differences with Michigan’s political class, we would be better off with them running the public schools than we are under the current system, in which the MEA regularly abuses its collective bargaining powers to thwart reforms. It is a bizarre world indeed when the MEA claims to be the taxpayers' champion.