Possible Explanations for the Varied Reponses to Public Act 349

There may not be one single explanation for why so many school districts, based on the language in their teachers union contract, appear to have failed to completely comply with Public Act 349. Ignorance of the law is not a likely explanation: Officials must have been aware of Public Act 349, given the high level of media attention and deluge of contract negotiations that occurred in March 2013.

District officials may have desired to maintain an amicable relationship with their unions by cooperating with efforts to maintain forced dues. This mindset may explain why some district officials chose to cooperate with fast-tracked negotiations prior to March 28, 2013.

Another possible explanation for the large number of districts who appear to be noncompliant with Public Act 349 may be the strength of Michigan’s teachers unions. There is no doubt that teachers union, and their officials, stand the most to lose from Public Act 349, especially if a significant number of teachers opt to leave the union and halt their financial support. The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, stands to lose hundreds of dollars every year from each member who declines membership.

In late 2012, the Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education research organization, ranked the strength of Michigan’s teachers unions as sixth-highest in the nation in terms of financial resources and membership rates and fourth in political involvement.[118] Nearly a quarter of Michigan delegates sent to both Democratic and Republican national conventions were teachers union members.[119]

But, when it comes to state policy, Michigan teachers unions received the lowest possible ranking. Fordham notes that collective bargaining reform laws passed in 2011 — the implementation of which the Center reviewed in a previous study — reduced teachers unions’ influence. The Fordham authors note that there is a “striking disparity” between Michigan teachers union resources and political involvement and the unions’ actual impact on policy.[120]

The disparity the Fordham report identified may be one influencing the large number of districts that appear to be attempting to avoid the implementation of Public Act 349. Since Michigan’s teacher unions have not been able to stop the Legislature from passing laws they oppose, these unions may be attempting block and stall the implementation of these laws at the local level. With only small repercussions for ratifying union contracts that fail to comply with these new laws, there teachers unions stand to lose very little for encouraging districts to block or stall implementation. Under Public Act 349, individuals and school districts that have violated the law by including mandatory dues language in collective bargaining agreements will be punished with a fine of $500 or less.[121]

The fact that 76 school districts agreed to new collective bargaining agreements during the four-month period between when Public Act 349 was signed and when it took effect suggests that teachers unions were actively seeking and relatively successful at compelling school district officials to act to stall the implementation of Public Act 349. Previous research published by the Mackinac Center suggests that unions acted similarly with regard to other state laws.[*]

[*] In response to the collective bargaining reforms of 2011, some school districts ratified contracts that agreed to immediately reinstate prohibited language into their contracts if a union-backed ballot initiative were to pass in the 2012 general election. In response to a new law requiring districts to make performance a “significant factor” in determining teacher pay, some districts ratified union contracts that only paid teachers $1 for excellent performance. Audrey Spalding, “Roadblocks to Reform?: A Review of Union Contracts in Michigan Schools” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2014), http://goo.gl/drb7I1 (accessed July 28, 2014); Tom Gantert, “Study: Most School Districts Violating Merit Pay Law,” Michigan Capitol Confidential (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Oct. 16, 2012), http://goo.gl/GNN5OO (accessed July 31, 2014).