Many factors come into play to make a school successful—sufficient resources, support from parents, and sound curricula being a few—but one that is often overlooked is a positive relationship between teachers and the school boards and administrators with whom the teachers interact. If that relationship is unbalanced or riven with hostility, a school won’t function well and students will suffer.

More than anything else in Michigan today, that relationship is shaped by the collective bargaining process and the contract terms between teacher unions and school districts. A collective bargaining agreement limits a school’s success if it unreasonably restricts the ability of management to put the right person with the right training in the right place at the right time, wastes scarce financial resources, or fails to equip teachers to exercise their rights and duties as professionals.

So how is Michigan doing on this score? There is plenty of room for improvement, according to the findings of a new study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy—the first comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of collective bargaining contracts in Michigan’s 583 school districts.

For example: Fewer than 10 percent of contracts permit sufficient flexibility for school administrations to appropriately match the right teachers to the right classrooms. Fewer than 5 percent allow a performance-based component in the determination of teacher compensation. Most contracts require tenured teachers to be evaluated no more frequently than once every three years. And a significant number of districts are not taking advantage of the ability the Legislature gave them in 1994 to save money through competitive bidding for teacher health insurance.

Many of the improvements needed stem from this important fact: Far too many districts have abandoned their obligations to protect their employees’ constitutional rights and have conferred harmful powers and privileges on the unions at the expense of teachers, children, and taxpayers. Indeed, if Michigan school boards resolved to correct their mistakes in this one area, it would do more than any other policy change to make unions more accountable, teachers more responsible, and education more productive. Here is how they could accomplish that:

 1. Remove Union Security Clauses. Many school board members and other citizens mistakenly believe that union membership is required for all government school teachers working under a collective bargaining agreement in Michigan. The truth is that there is no statute that requires teachers to either become union members or pay dues unless school districts actually include a "union security clause" in their contracts. This clause, in effect, makes a district the collection agent for union dues and restricts a teacher’s freedom to resign from the union if he or she feels membership is not worth the time, trouble, or expense.

Currently, every teacher contract in Michigan includes a union security clause. School boards should negotiate these clauses out of their agreements, stop serving as collection agents and recordkeepers for the unions, and inform teachers of their right—affirmed by the U. S. Supreme Court—not to financially support the political and other noncollective bargaining activities of the union.

2. Remove Exclusive Representation Clauses. When a district recognizes a particular union as the agent representing its employees, state law grants "exclusive" recognition to that agent to act for those employees on issues involving wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. But more than 500 Michigan school district contracts go a step further and prevent the school board from negotiating with any other organization for the purposes of professional development for its employees.

In other words, if a school board wished to contract with a math, science, or professional teacher organization for the purposes of professional development, it would first have to secure the union’s permission. School boards should remove such restrictive language from their contracts and allow their teachers to explore opportunities with professional organizations that may not have the blessing of the union.

3. Put Performance Ahead of Seniority. Most government school teachers in Michigan are paid according to a seniority-based salary schedule, which awards compensation according to a teacher’s years of experience and level of education. This contrasts with standard practice among other professionals, whereby employees working under a "merit-based" schedule receive compensation that is commensurate with their performance and productivity.

Teachers working under a seniority system face disincentives to continually improve their teaching methods and professional development. Good teachers sometimes suffer morale problems as a result. School boards should work to remove seniority-based salary schedules from their contracts and institute practices that reward outstanding teachers and attract the best people for the job.

To improve education in Michigan, school boards don’t need to plead for more dollars from taxpayers or wait for Lansing to tell them what to do. If they make changes in what they negotiate at the bargaining table, they can do a lot to get the job done on their own.