The Michigan legislature in December acted on two pieces of legislation aimed at effectively de-unionizing Detroit school administrators and boosting the number of charter schools that state universities can authorize.
Over the protests of lawmakers representing Detroit, both chambers passed a bill that would prohibit school principals and administrators in Detroit from engaging in collective bargaining activities. Meanwhile, the state House failed to pass legislation to lift the 150-school legislative cap on university-sponsored charter schools, despite earlier passage in the Senate as well as the strong support of Governor John Engler.
Under the collective bargaining bill, the chief executive officer of Detroit's public schools would have the discretion to prevent school superintendents, principals, assistant principals, and chief business officers from unionizing. Engler signed the bill in late December.
Detroit schools interim CEO David Adamany has been a vocal supporter of the bill, arguing that unionization among Detroit school administrators hinders efforts to hold them accountable or dismiss them if necessary.
"This is an essential step for the reform of Detroit's public schools," Adamany told The Detroit News. "It will allow the district to place substantial additional authority in the hands of the principals to handle their schools. It will also allow the district to hold the principals directly accountable for the educational performance in their schools."
Other Democrats criticized the effort as an infringement on the right of administrators to bargain collectively.
"The answer to public education seems to be 'let's be union busters,'" said Rep. Julie Dennis (D-Muskegon). "This is wrong for anyone who supports a person's right to collectively bargain, whether they are a teacher or an administrator."
But the bill's supporters say the interests of students come before those of unions.
"[T]he strident accusations of 'union busting' reveal that some people are more interested in protecting unions than in ensuring results with our kids," wrote Rep. Valde Garcia (R-St. John's) in a special letter to the News.
The bill in its original form would have applied to about 100 districts in Michigan, but lawmakers narrowed its scope dramatically during the debate in an effort to ensure its passage. The state House applied the proposal only to school districts with a reform board, in financial receivership, or in a self-declared financial emergency. Currently, only the districts of Detroit and Inkster would have qualified under that version. The state Senate introduced the version that eventually passed, applying the bill only to Detroit.
The narrowing of the bill to what ended up being predominantly black districts prompted some legislators to question the motivations behind the measure.
"Who is the population of those . . . cities? This is a racist bill," Rep. LaMar Lemmons (D-Detroit) told the bill's supporters. "If it's such good public policy, why don't you decertify [administrators] in your district?"
Others suggested that the state should defer to local districts regarding this type of legislation.
"To micromanage the city of Detroit from Lansing is the wrong thing to do," declared Rep. Artina Tinsley Hardman (D-Detroit).
Governor Engler signed the bill, and it will take effect on March 10, 2000.
A bill to expand charter schools in Michigan, however, did not make it to the governor's desk. Engler had proposed an increase in the number of charter schools in Michigan by 50 schools for the fall 2000 school year and 25 in each year thereafter. The Senate approved the initial addition of 50 charters, but limited further increases to 25 in each of the next three years.
In a vote that would have approved the issue for debate, 49 House members voted yes while 58 voted no, including six Republicans. After tabling the issue, the GOP leadership was unable to approve an alternative before the holiday recess.
"We ran out of time," said House Speaker Chuck Perricone (R-Kalamazoo Township).
Republican lawmakers had hoped to approve an increase before the new year so that more charters could open in the fall of 2000. Except in the unlikely event of a supermajority approval in the first session of 2000, an increase in the cap now would not take effect until April 2001.
Current law allows state universities to sponsor an aggregate of 150 charters, a limit that the universities have reached.
Defeating the bill was a coalition that fears the effects of charter schools on traditional public schools. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) also opposed the bill.
"It was our election goal to find friends of public education from both parties," MEA lobbyist Al Short told the Lansing State Journal. "This was a major field operation achievement."
Despite this legislative defeat, some charter school advocates remain optimistic about raising the cap in the long run.
"Charter schools have strong public support," Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told MER. He cited a survey by Marketing Resource Group, Inc., showing that 62 percent of Michigan voters support charter schools.
"We are optimistic that the legislature will respond to the public," Quisenberry added.
The House plans to revisit the issue later this year.