They Can Be Taught!

The Legislature learns from its mistakes, heads off the union veto on tenure reform

The governor has recently been presented with a package of four bills that overhaul teacher tenure. One of the bills has not been commented on as much as it probably should have.  For once, though, the surprise is a pretty good one.

House Bill 4628 amends the Public Employment Relations Act to prohibit collective bargaining over some key education personnel issues, such as teacher placement, evaluation procedures, layoffs and merit pay. These changes are critical because they should prevent union officials from “vetoing” the Legislature through the collective bargaining process.

MEA and MFT officials have used collective bargaining authority to thwart reforms in the past. In one memorable case, the MEA refused to sign “memoranda of understanding” that would have signaled their acceptance of merit pay, torpedoing Michigan’s application for federal “Race to the Top” grants. This time the Legislature seems to have learned from its prior mistakes; by removing the subjects of tenure and teacher placement from collective bargaining, they are attempting to make these changes union-veto-proof.

The process of collective bargaining allows union officials to influence terms of employment. In the public sector, this can be used to influence how government itself functions. As we’ve noted on more than one occasion, the result is a “union veto,” in which contract terms tie the hands of local officials. (Go here for a more detailed explanation of how the union veto works.) Fortunately, this time the Legislature has opted to make sure that school boards hands remain untied; teachers unions should be unable to negotiate contract terms that prevent districts from using the power that the new tenure law gives them.

The overall tenure package leaves something to be desired; principals cannot refuse to place ineffective teachers, meaning that ineffective teachers can still be shuffled from school to school (the “dance of the lemons”) or put on paid leave for long stretches, receiving full pay while not teaching (the “rubber rooms”). A word of caution is in order about the bill’s enforcement as well; the bill doesn’t provide penalties for unions or school boards that try to violate the limits on bargaining, or assign anyone with the task of policing union contracts.

Still, by changing PERA, the Legislature greatly improved the chances that the reforms it did pass will actually take effect. Overall this should leave districts with more flexibility to reward high-performing teachers and ease incompetent teachers into another line of work.