MIDLAND — The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is recommending that the Michigan Legislature close a loophole that allowed Detroit teachers to violate the state law prohibiting teacher strikes, and to avoid sanctions for their one-day walkout on Sept. 25. On that day, 3,000 teachers from Detroit Public Schools, one of the nation's worst urban school districts, held a mass demonstration at the state Capitol to protest legislation that would have allowed philanthropist Robert Thompson to give $200 million to the city for building 15 charter schools.
“The current statute governing public employee strikes only applies when a work stoppage is called in order to pressure a public employer to make concessions in contract talks or otherwise change terms and conditions of employment,” said Paul Kersey, labor policy research associate at the Mackinac Center. “But the walkout Sept. 25 was politically motivated, and therefore did not come under the anti-strike law. Public employee strikes should be against the law regardless of their motives,” he said.
“This was a betrayal of public trust and a misuse of union power,” said Kersey. “In return for the legal option of engaging in collective bargaining, government employees, including public school teachers, are prohibited from striking. On Sept. 25, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, at the request of union leadership, broke this compact.”
The vehement opposition of the public school employee union to the charter school bill was a major factor leading philanthropist Robert Thompson to conclude that it would be impossible for him to achieve the purposes behind his $200 million gift to the city’s school children. “By their actions, the defenders of this failed school system could not have made their scale of priorities more clear,” said Jack McHugh, legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center. “Very low on that scale are the future prospects and current well being of the children forced to attend this school district, which is a tragic monument to failure and hopelessness.”
McHugh and Kersey cited Mackinac Center research suggesting the Thompson charter schools could have improved student performance, and which documents the economic costs incurred by the Detroit district’s failure to adequately educate the city’s children. For example, according to an August 2000 Mackinac Center study by Dr. Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York, N.Y., more than $600 million in costs are incurred by Michigan business and institutions of higher learning each year because of students who leave high school without learning basic skills. In addition, the Center’s research shows that despite efforts of the public school establishment to undercut them, the rate of improvement of students in Michigan’s charter schools on the state’s MEAP achievement test is dramatically faster than in traditional schools.
By removing the issue of motives from the anti-strike law, the Legislature would make all coordinated work stoppages illegal, regardless of the purposes behind them. “Government employees have an obligation to avoid work stoppages that shut down public services. The fact that the Detroit Federation of Teachers had objections to the charter bill did not cancel out that obligation,” Kersey observed. “Teachers can lobby after school. State law should leave no question that strikes by public employees are prohibited.”