Michigan’s elected school boards face a difficult challenge. The law requires them to run the state’s public schools, but conditions are stacked against them. As this primer has noted, the industrial model of collective bargaining is poorly suited for educational institutions and works to the detriment of students and teachers alike. It stifles communication and injects conflict and confrontation into situations where consensus and cooperation should prevail.
While our conclusion is that collective bargaining hinders the management of the public schools, there are alternative voices. Linda Kaboolian asserts, for example, "The only constructive alternative to these power struggles is an expansion of collective bargaining to include joint responsibility for achievement outcomes, along with balanced, shared roles in governance." We are not convinced.
It is our conclusion after reviewing the law and interviewing those engaged in the process that as long as the current system remains in place, public education in Michigan will never be as good as it can be. Nevertheless, absent deeper reforms, such as expanded school choice, or Michigan’s joining the ranks of right-to-work states, this is the system under which board members must operate.
The unions, with which board members must bargain in good faith, hold political leverage over board members, who are subject to a public vote. While unions may run stealth candidates for board positions, it is not possible for boards to run similar candidates in union elections. A union may become the permanent bargaining agent with a one-time 50 percent vote that cannot be challenged while a valid contract is in place — a favorable condition not enjoyed by board members.
The default position of the community is often sympathy with teachers, which translates into support for their union’s ever-increasing demands. School boards cannot lock out unions, which can collect money from nonmembers and easily file complaints of unfair labor practices. Unions also can stage sickouts and other job actions with relative impunity.
To perform their job under these adverse conditions, board members must be unified, be cognizant of Michigan labor law, know what they want to achieve, and be aware of the views and positions of the unions that represent their district’s employees. Board members should also understand that they are dealing with experienced professionals whose first priority is the financial interests of the union’s members, not the welfare of students, parents or taxpayers.
Board members must know the law but need to have command of much more. They must know what can be the subject of bargaining and retain as much control as possible of key educational issues for which they are responsible. For example, they have no obligation to opt for a union’s expensive and self-serving version of health insurance. Boards should also look for the opportunity to cut costs by privatizing and outsourcing services. As the Mackinac Center has shown in the past, even the powerful Michigan Education Association does likewise.
The guidelines set forth in this primer will help board members accomplish these goals. So will the knowledge that board members are working on behalf of Michigan’s students, the ones for whom the entire system of public education exists. Achieving the very best the public can offer students and their parents is a tough assignment. To accomplish that goal, board members would do well to recall the observation of the late Seattle, Wash., superintendent John Stanford, who noted that we lost our way when we became more interested in the employment of adults than the education of children. Or as the students in Ironwood put it, "What about us?"
The authors of this primer wish board members every success in their endeavors.
Henry Saad on being a school board member: “I think it’s one of the most difficult jobs there is.”