When Local Control Means Control by Locals

The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest teachers' union, claims to support "more local control of our public schools" and greater utilization of "site-based management." At the very same time, the union opposes new proposals for charter public schools and other forms of school choice.

The reality is that the union, through its surrogate "local" affiliates, is the main impediment to genuine local control of public education. In most school districts in Michigan, the MEA has the power to set the terms of employment and working conditions for teachers and other employees. According to State Superintendent Robert Schiller, all of the state's regulations combined interfere less with local control than do employee contracts negotiated for the most part by local MEA affiliates.

For example, most MEA-negotiated contracts require that school administrators review all teaching assignments with local union leaders and follow a seniority system. In other words, local MEA affiliates exercise veto power over most personnel decisions in school districts.

MEA officials argue in response that employee contracts are the domain of both local school officials and local employee representatives. But the reality is that any serious attempt by school administrators or school board members to change major contract provisions such as seniority are likely to be met with prolonged (and illegal) strikes. Furthermore, local union affiliates are under enormous pressure to negotiate to terms set by the state MEA and regional MEA affiliates.

Nowhere was this fact better illustrated recently than in Troy, where the Troy Education Association negotiated a contract which provided for reasonable annual salary increases. Troy teacher union officials were bitterly attacked by the Wayne Regional MEA and local MEA affiliates in neighboring school districts for not extracting heftier raises.

Genuine local control and site-based management should allow teachers a fair amount of professional autonomy. Yet this is not how the MEA defines it at all.

The union's ability to interfere with the professional aspirations of individual teachers was highlighted recently in Saginaw. Louise Harrison, a finalist for Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1989-90 and Creative Writing Teacher of the Year in Michigan in 1992, requested a transfer to a different school in the Saginaw School District where a vacancy had occurred. The administration approved her request but the local MEA affiliate blocked the move on the grounds that it violated seniority rules. Ruth Braun, a school board member, noted with disgust that the schools in Saginaw "can't override the union and put our best teachers in positions that are in the best interests of students."

Ms. Harrison, a veteran teacher of 19 years, was outraged by the union's decision. In a letter to the Superintendent, she wrote: "I am [also] struck by the irony of policy that uses the single criterion of longevity to supersede those criteria of performance, productivity, and professionalism."

The union's power to veto assignment requests of individual teachers and school administrators essentially prevents genuine local control and site-based managment in public education. School principals or district administrators cannot adjust their staff to the needs of schoolchildren as best they see fit nor can teachers choose the school where they want to teach unless they are the most senior in the district.

The MEA's vigorous opposition to charter public schools makes a mockery of its support for "local control." Charter school proposals currently being considered would permit teachers, principals and parents in existing public schools to exercise genuine site-based authority in all major areas of school operation--including staff assignments, salary and benefit structure, curriculum, school support service providers, and most other details of school operation. Charter schools would have nearly complete control over school-level budgeting because state funds would flow directly to the school based on enrollment rather than to district-level administrators.

Furthermore, under Governor Engler's charter school plan, teachers would be free to organize their own school-level collective representation, whether as a traditional union affiliate or as a workers cooperative or even professional association. How much more local control could a professional educator have?

Yet the MEA vigorously opposes charter public schools precisely because they provide teachers and other school employees the power to opt out of the union's present control over the terms of employment and working conditions and to make these decisions for themselves.

Apparently, what the MEA means by "local control" is control by its locals.