Important education issues will face voters around Michigan on Tuesday, May 2. As an educational institute, the Mackinac Center seeks to provide information to help citizens make wise decisions that will provide the best education possible to Michigan children. Benefiting from a school election law that consolidates voting to one of four days in the year, citizens in many Michigan public school districts will have the opportunity to vote on school board candidates and tax proposals that may directly impact the quality of the schools in their districts.

Here is a quick checklist for voters who have the future of schoolchildren in their hands.

1. Is the school board candidate willing to make fiscally sound decisions that will direct more dollars to the instruction of children and the preservation of teachers’ jobs?

Scores of districts around the state have saved public education funds by competitively sourcing certain services, according to the 2005 biennial survey by the Michigan Privatization Report. These non-instructional services — including food, janitorial and transportation — are important for quality education. Schools must have clean classrooms and other facilities to provide an environment conducive to learning. Many school boards are finding that private companies offer these services at a fraction of the cost. These savings free up money in the district’s budget to be spent on keeping quality teachers and on other classroom expenditures.

Savings are being realized around the state by dozens of districts who are replacing Rolls-Royce-type health insurance plans from the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a third-party insurance administrator affiliated with the Michigan Education Association union. Districts have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by switching to less costly, but comparable plans from insurance providers.

Such savings have been fiercely opposed by the MEA union in contract negotiations, and dozens of stories have shown that the union will go to great lengths to prevent districts from achieving these savings.

FURTHER READING: 2005 Privatization Survey; MESSA Reference Page; Michigan Education Report, "Growing number of districts seek solutions to costly health insurance," Fall 2005; "A School Board President Speaks Out."

2. Is the candidate willing to reform collective bargaining?

In Michigan, unionized teachers’ employment details must be negotiated by teachers unions. Unions such as the MEA have developed sophisticated collective bargaining methods for more than 30 years. Using significant resources taken involuntarily from teachers’ paychecks, the union uses deceptive, high-pressure tactics on school board members for considering decisions that are in the interest of advancing educational quality. Issues affected by union bargaining include raising costs so that fewer funds are available for the classroom, restricting administrators’ ability to lead high-performing schools and rewarding effective and ineffective teachers alike.

FURTHER READING: "Reform Collective Bargaining," in "Six Habits of Fiscally Responsible School Districts"; "Union Contract Prevents Budget and Classroom Reforms."

3. Does the candidate want to extend to the district the benefits of competition in Michigan’s limited education market?

Competition has been shown to improve educational quality. This is especially true in states and countries where parents are given significant freedom to choose the best and safest schools for their children. However, the principle extends even to an education system in which parents’ options are severely limited, such as we have in Michigan.

Would the candidate support or oppose the establishment of a charter school to give district parents more options close to home? If elected, would the school board member advocate opening schools to cross-district choice so that parents in surrounding districts could have the opportunity to give their children a quality education in the district’s schools? Does the candidate understand how competition with neighboring districts can foster improvement of her district’s educational quality and fiscal management?

FURTHER READING: "The Impact of Limited School Choice on Public School Districts"; "Incentives Can Enhance Educational Quality and Reduce Costs"; "Myth #8: School Choice Does Not Improve Education," in "The Case for Choice in Schooling."

4. Is the candidate interested in working with advisers to consider how best to maximize resources?

Many business people in the community, as well as education and finance specialists, have the expertise necessary to navigate the sometimes tricky waters of managing school budgets. Is the school board member willing to seek outside help? For several years, experts at the Mackinac Center have successfully helped Michigan school districts confronting fiscal crises, and the Center remains willing to help districts.

FURTHER READING: "Private Group Offers to Manage Schools"; "Help for a School District."

5. Does the proposal take account of empirical evidence about education spending and student achievement?

Some districts are seeking to increase capital revenues with local millages. Some even say that the 1994 school finance reform known as "Proposal A" limited or cut districts’ revenue. This ignores statewide data that show local and state education revenues have increased an average of about 55 percent since 1994. And it neglects the fact that revenues for capital expenditures have increased 217 percent since Proposal A. Furthermore, empirical evidence has demonstrated that more education spending does not yield higher student achievement. Although per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled in Michigan since 1970 when adjusted for inflation, student performance remains stagnant.

FURTHER READING: "Jen and the Art of Education."

If voters and school board members objectively and thoughtfully considered these questions, educational quality and parents’ satisfaction in Michigan would take a significant step forward.

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Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.