Michigan’s elected school boards face a difficult challenge. The law requires them to run the state’s public schools, but conditions are stacked
against them. As this primer has noted, the industrial model of collective
bargaining is poorly suited for educational institutions and works to the
detriment of students and teachers alike. It stifles communication and injects
conflict and confrontation into situations where consensus and cooperation
While our conclusion is that collective bargaining hinders the
management of the public schools, there are alternative voices. Linda Kaboolian
asserts, for example, "The only constructive alternative to these power
struggles is an expansion of collective bargaining to include joint
responsibility for achievement outcomes, along with balanced, shared roles in
governance." We are not convinced.
It is our conclusion after reviewing the law and interviewing
those engaged in the process that as long as the current system remains in
place, public education in Michigan will never be as good as it can be.
Nevertheless, absent deeper reforms, such as expanded school choice, or
Michigan’s joining the ranks of right-to-work states, this is the system under
which board members must operate.
The unions, with which board members must bargain in good faith,
hold political leverage over board members, who are subject to a public vote.
While unions may run stealth candidates for board positions, it is not possible
for boards to run similar candidates in union elections. A union may become the
permanent bargaining agent with a one-time 50 percent vote that cannot be
challenged while a valid contract is in place — a favorable condition not
enjoyed by board members.
The default position of the community is often sympathy with
teachers, which translates into support for their union’s ever-increasing
demands. School boards cannot lock out unions, which can collect money from
nonmembers and easily file complaints of unfair labor practices. Unions also can
stage sickouts and other job actions with relative impunity.
To perform their job under these adverse conditions, board
members must be unified, be cognizant of Michigan labor law, know what they want
to achieve, and be aware of the views and positions of the unions that represent
their district’s employees. Board members should also understand that they are
dealing with experienced professionals whose first priority is the financial
interests of the union’s members, not the welfare of students, parents or
Board members must know the law but need to have command of much
more. They must know what can be the subject of bargaining and retain as much
control as possible of key educational issues for which they are responsible.
For example, they have no obligation to opt for a union’s expensive and
self-serving version of health insurance. Boards should also look for the
opportunity to cut costs by privatizing and outsourcing services. As the
Mackinac Center has shown in the past, even the powerful Michigan Education
Association does likewise.
The guidelines set forth in this primer will help board members
accomplish these goals. So will the knowledge that board members are working on
behalf of Michigan’s students, the ones for whom the entire system of public
education exists. Achieving the very best the public can offer students and
their parents is a tough assignment. To accomplish that goal, board members
would do well to recall the observation of the late Seattle, Wash.,
superintendent John Stanford, who noted that we lost our way when we became more
interested in the employment of adults than the education of children. Or as the
students in Ironwood put it, "What about us?"
The authors of this primer wish board members every success in
on being a school board member: “I think it’s one of the most
difficult jobs there is.”