In January, Mid-Michigan Public School Academy in Lansing became the largest unionized charter school in the nation when teachers there voted to join the Michigan Education Association (MEA).
Thirty-eight teachers voted to unionize at the 1,200-student charter school while 21 teachers either opposed union representation or abstained.
Many teachers cited concerns over long work-weeks, job security, and confusion over leadership and discipline as reasons for their decision to join the MEA, the state's largest school employee labor union.
Mid-Michigan teachers first considered a proposal to join the MEA in 1997, but they eventually rejected the idea by a vote of 35-18.
Gov. John Engler, an advocate of charter schools and frequent opponent of the MEA, shrugged off concerns that unionization might negatively affect Mid-Michigan's students.
"That's not a problem. We have unions in Michigan," he told The Detroit News. "The right to bargain and the right to organize are rights Michigan has always recognized."
Mid-Michigan Public School Academy is managed by Edison Schools, a for-profit, New York-based company that operates many traditional public and charter schools throughout the country. Chris Cerf, chief operating officer of Edison, said that he remains optimistic that the company and the union can work together to implement reforms.
Unions traditionally have had difficulty organizing charter school teachers. A 1999 survey of 139 Michigan charter schools conducted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy revealed that only 5 schools had collective bargaining agreements in place.
"In light of labor unions' opposition to charter schools, it is probably rather puzzling to most people that the MEA would even want to organize charter school teachers," says study author Matthew J. Brouillette. "But now that the unions have their foot in the door at the state's largest charter school, we shouldn't be surprised if their rhetoric begins to change."
The 148,000-member MEA has been one of the harshest critics of charter schools, recently helping to defeat legislation that would have raised the 150-school cap on university-authorized charter schools.
Lori Yaklin, executive director of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association, a professional association for public, charter, and private school board members, notes the irony of the situation.
"It appears that the MEA is happy to take money from charter school teachers, while simultaneously criticizing them and trying to hinder their effectiveness," she says. "I hope the school board will not allow the MEA to transform Mid-Michigan into a union/management battleground where children are the casualties," she says.
Negotiations between the Mid-Michigan school board and union officials are expected to be completed later this summer.