"Save Our Jobs," chanted several hundred union members gathered on the steps of the capitol in Lansing on June 13. They were there to protest the growing trend to privatize custodial, food service, and busing in Michigans schools.
Recognizing the importance of competition and the need to constrain rising school costs, in April 1994 the Michigan legislature gave school districts a tool they are now using to the dismay of unions. Lawmakers took the privatization of school support services off the list of mandatory subjects for collective bargaining. Now, if a district wishes to get out of the busing business, for example, it can do so with relative ease. The savings can be put to work in the classroom for children, which is arguably more in tune with the purpose of schooling than providing permanent employment for support personnel.
Protests from union members are probably destined for futility. The legislature shows no interest in repealing the 1994 law, and school districts are increasingly interested in cost-saving measures. Take, for instance, the issue of busing.
Public school transportation is an enormous enterprise, with $8.3 billion spent in 1990. A 1994 study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Reason Foundation (Making Schools Work: Contracting Options for Better Management) reported,
School buses make more than double the number of passenger trips made by all the mass transit buses in the country, and about 70 percent of all pupil transportation is provided by public providers. Per-pupil transportation costs have been rising sharply. In 1960, the public per-pupil transportation cost was just $40 per year, jumping to over $320 per year in 1989, an inflation-adjusted increase of about 100 percent.
Some parts of the country use private firms extensively for pupil transportation, while others use the public option exclusively. In San Francisco, 100 percent of the school bus service is private. Almost all students in the state of Massachusetts go to school on private buses. In Michigan, the portion of students riding on private buses is believed to be well under 10 percent of the whole.