Alcohol and Merit Pay

Oh, the things you find in a teachers union contract

For the last couple of months, I spent a good portion of each day reading public school teacher contracts. Slogging through legalese can be painful, but fruitful, and goes to show how the Mackinac Center operates as one of the state’s most effective watchdogs of government labor unions.

The Center maintains a database that contains every public school union contract in the entire state — more than 5,000 contracts dating back to 2004. Every year, we update this database by adding new contracts and posting all of them online. In an average month, users access this online database about 2,000 times.

With this enormous amount of information at my fingertips, I was able to analyze more than 100 union contracts and make two important discoveries. The first was that the Bay City contract gives teachers the luxury of being under the influence or in possession of alcohol on school property five times before they can be fired. Likewise, they can be in possession of illegal drugs on school property two times before the district can let them go.

If Proposal 2, the so-called “Protect Working Families” constitutional amendment, had passed, this provision would have remained in effect in Bay City. Our coverage of abuses like this went a long way to educate voters about what they might be unleashing if they let union contracts trump state law.

The second discovery related to Michigan’s new merit pay law, which requires schools to use job performance as a “significant factor” when setting teacher compensation. I found that the vast majority of districts were paying teachers almost exclusively based on years on the job and college credentials and ignoring merit entirely. Although they are educated and trained as professionals, under union contracts, teachers are paid like interchangeable assembly-line workers.

What’s worse, almost all of the districts that did use merit pay were making a mockery of it. For instance, many districts’ definition of merit pay was a bonus of less than 1 percent of an average teacher’s salary. A few districts paid proven teachers only a few bucks extra. What an insult to the profession! Fortunately, there are legislators who are now working to make sure great teachers are properly rewarded.

This level of analysis and research is one that only the Mackinac Center provides to the public. These contracts impact a large portion of how each district operates, so collecting and analyzing them is critical to understanding how districts function and, in some cases, dysfunction.