Which is the best method for improving the relationship between public school teachers and the parents and school boards who employ them-the carrot or the stick?

Legislative leaders in Lansing vow to do something on this issue soon, and the focus of their attention is the extraordinary power of the state's largest teacher union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA). Most of the proposals being floated are punitive in nature-imposing fines against striking teachers or mandating binding arbitration, for example.

The rising hostility to the MEA is understandable in the wake of its campaign against last month's Proposal A, widely perceived as brazenly deceptive. As The Saginaw News editorialized on March 18, "It should disturb all conscientious teachers that while they strive in the classroom to educate honest citizens, back at the office, their 'leaders' publicly trash the truth for attempted political gain. . . .In the public eye, teachers will not gain the respect they deserve, if the group that speaks for them deserves none."

The MEA has earned public antipathy for other reasons as well. It opposes charter schools and parental choice. It is against competitive bidding of teacher health insurance. It fights efforts by districts to contain costs by contracting out for support functions, even though it does so itself at its own East Lansing headquarters. And it always demands more money at the same time it resists meaningful ways to be held accountable for its actions.

The MEA hasn't exactly endeared itself to parents, school boards, and taxpayers on the issue of teacher strikes. Michigan law clearly states that "No person holding a position by appointment or employment in the government of the state of Michigan, or in the government of any one or more political subdivisions thereof, or in the public school service . . . shall strike." Yet in the past 10 years, Michigan-with just 3.7 percent of the nation's population-has been home to 14.4 percent of the nation's teacher strikes. More than 100 illegal walk-outs have occurred in this state in that time period.

So what's the answer? Before the legislature sets off in the direction of fines, mandates, edicts, and other forms of punishment, it ought to consider a more positive alternative: simply exempt teachers from the Public Employment Relations Act, or PERA.

Instead of allowing individual school employees to deal with their employer directly, PERA forces them to be represented by a single labor union. It forces the school district to bargain collectively with the union leadership. That makes teachers captives of the politics of the union, their individual voices subsumed by the dictates of the whole. It replaces pay and promotion based upon an individual's performance with arbitrary measures like seniority and academic degrees. In other words, by granting the union this special privilege, PERA prevents real teacher choice and an open market in labor representation.

For teachers, the question is a fundamental one: Do you want to deal directly with your employer or do you want to be forced to go through the union middleman?

Teachers exempt from PERA could still be members of a labor union and could even bargain collectively. Indeed, 13 states have no mandatory collective bargaining laws for any government employees but still have public employee unions. In one such state, Utah, 28 percent of public employees are covered by union contracts. The difference is, the employees make the decision-to go it alone or join the union of their choice. Unions, in other words, must convince each employee that membership is worth the cost.

In the absence of PERA, teachers could still walk off the job. The school district, however, would not be forced to bargain with strikers or their representatives. They could freely deal with other prospective and willing employees or employee organizations to better meet the needs of the students and school district. The strike issue that has vexed Michigan for years would be resolved, not by threats of punishment, but simply by the freedom of the parties involved to negotiate as best they see fit. Teachers would still come under the protection of wrongful discharge law, just as most other Michigan workers do.

Though mandatory collective bargaining laws like PERA were sold, in part, as a way to foster labor peace, just the opposite has occurred. According to data from the Public Service Research Council, most states which have adopted such laws have subsequently seen huge increases in the number of strikes. There was only one strike against various levels of government in Michigan between 1958 and 1964. Public employee strikes were made illegal and collective bargaining was made mandatory in 1965. Then, between 1965 and 1980, there were 759 strikes! Many of them were staged by teacher unions.

Allowing teachers choice by exempting them from PERA would have other salutary benefits besides resolving the strike question. It would remove the barriers that unaccountable and often unresponsive monopoly unions have erected between parents and teachers. It would inject into the teacher labor market some sensitivity to the costs imposed upon taxpayers. It would also open the door for good teachers to advance and be rewarded according to their merit while hastening the exit of poor performers.

Whether to amend PERA with further dictates or repeal its application to teachers altogether is a question of the carrot or the stick. One gets the job done by relying upon freedom, incentive, and individual choice. The other creates division and animosity by treating teachers like pawns to be pushed and shoved.

If the legislature wants to improve the relationship between teachers and their employers, it doesn't have to pass new laws. It only has to clear the decks of an existing one.