Union Spends $200,000, Gets Embarrassing Questions and Faulty Document
A $700 million school labor union conglomerate has conceived, funded, and staffed the board of a new group whose first act was to publicly attack Mackinac Center research. But a flawed inaugural publication and an embarrassing error by the group's chairman have damaged the effort's credibility.
The group, called the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, is the latest attempt by the Michigan Education Association (MEA) to discredit independent research that threatens the union's legally protected monopoly status and income stream.
In its 14 years, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has published hundreds of studies and reports. Many of the analyses that addressed education policy and labor law concluded that students, teachers, and workers would benefit from greater school choice and freedom from compulsory unionism. Union officials believe such reforms would reduce their income and political clout.
The MEA is funded by the compulsory dues and fees of more than 100,000 public school teachers, bus drivers, cooks, and custodians. Its health insurance subsidiary brings in approximately $600 million in annual payments from school districts required by law to bargain with the union.
Influential Mackinac Center analyses have affected union finances. In just one instance, a Mackinac Center study of the MEA's insurance arm (Michigan Education Special Services Association, or MESSA) precipitated state regulatory scrutiny that resulted in MESSA having to return $70 million in overcharges to public school districts.
Attempting to counter the Mackinac Center's effectiveness over the years, the MEA has followed Mackinac Center publications with contradictory documents of its own, published under the MEA's name. Apparently because few people took such documents seriously, the MEA provided $200,000 in "seed money" to form its new alter-ego group to continue the practice of issuing negative responses to published Mackinac Center works.
The group's chairman, MEA President Luigi Battaglieri, acknowledged the Mackinac Center's success at his September 27 news conference by saying "Frankly, I admire what [the Mackinac Center has] done."
Mr. Battaglieri also asserted that the MEA group's first project, a 41-page criticism of 14 Mackinac Center education and labor studies, was needed because news media are quick to cite Mackinac Center research findings with which union officials disagree.
At the news conference, a journalist asked one of the document's authors, Dr. Peter W. Cookson, Jr., to cite an example of news media propagating faulty conclusions of Mackinac Center research. Dr. Cookson replied that he could cite no such instance.
Mr. Battaglieri then took the microphone from Dr. Cookson and claimed that a University of Virginia researcher, Dr. David Breneman, had publicly disputed a widely quoted Mackinac Center finding that remedial education costs Michigan businesses and colleges more than $600 million per year.
Mackinac Center Director of Education Policy Matthew Brouillette explained to the assembled journalists that, contrary to Mr. Battaglieri's assertion and perhaps to his surprise, Dr. Breneman in fact had pronounced the Mackinac Center's methodology valid in a short section he wrote inside the Mackinac Center study itself. Dr. Breneman authored the section after formally peer-reviewing the study at the Mackinac Center's request.
Mr. Battaglieri took no more questions about Dr. Breneman, and indicated that he would entertain no further remarks from Mr. Brouillette.
The MEA group's document received scant media attention, but Mackinac Center staff members reviewed its contents to see if it might nevertheless contain useful information on how to improve Mackinac Center research. Analysis yielded, however, five major flaws that prevent the document from being a useful critique.
Weaknesses include the document's failure to cite a single error in any Mackinac Center study; failure to subject itself to any peer-review whatsoever, while simultaneously criticizing the more rigorous peer-review process applied to all Mackinac Center studies; and failure to safeguard against the prejudice of a co-author who stated publicly that foundations such as those that support Mackinac Center research should not even exist.
An analysis of the MEA group's document may be found at http://www.mackinac.org/3820.
MEA officials vow that their new group will continue to respond to Mackinac Center research. Since its news conference, the group's executive director has left the organization. An interim executive director has been named.