A New Day for Michigan Schools

April 1995 marks the beginning of a new day for public schools in Michigan, thanks to two laws passed in Lansing a year ago.

Because of Public Act 112 of 1994, the door is open for new strategies that make use of motivated volunteers, new technology, and cost control in a friendlier environment. Because of Public Act 117, the ability of union leadership to intimidate teachers into compliance with its political agenda is now substantially reduced. Both acts take effect this month.

PA 112 amended Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act in ways that will make it easier for management to manage and for teachers to teach by addressing a range of collective bargaining matters. For one thing, it makes the start of the school year a non-bargainable issue. That's important because while it was illegal in the past for teachers to strike, the unions claimed that they were not on strike at all, but only bargaining over what day school should begin.

Michigan law since 1965 has clearly stated that "No person holding a position by appointment or employment in the government of the state of Michigan, or in the government of any one or more political subdivisions thereof, or in the public school service . . . shall strike." But in the decade prior to PA 112, Michigan-with just 3.7 percent of the nation's population-was home to 14.4 percent of the nation's teacher strikes. PA 112 puts teeth into previous law not only by making the start of the school year non-bargainable, but by enforcing the longstanding ban on strikes for the first time.

Striking teachers will each be docked one day's pay for every day they walk the picket line. If school boards lock out the teachers, the district will be fined $5,000 a day and board members will be hit for $250 a day. Neither unions nor school boards will be permitted to compensate themselves for strike fines in any bargaining agreement.

Strikes in the private sector are not banned, so why fine teachers in the public sector when they do the same thing? The crucial difference here is that customers are not forced to pay for the product when a private factory is shut down by a strike. When public employees close down a school, however, taxpayers keep paying for the education their children aren't getting.

In the past, many locally bargained agreements could be vetoed by officials higher up in the union. The new law prohibits this-a fact which strengthens Michigan's long-cherished tradition of "local control."

PA 112, furthermore, says that though employee health insurance benefits will continue to be bargained, school boards can no longer be forced under threat of strike to purchase the policies from the Michigan Education Association's insurance subsidiary. School boards may also now approve contracts for new charter schools, introduce interdistrict choice plans, privatize non-instructional services like busing, food, and custodial service, and use volunteers in the schools-without being forced by law to "bargain" over these things with the union.

Meanwhile, PA 117 makes major changes to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. Teacher unions can no longer automatically deduct political contributions from teacher paychecks and then get around campaign contribution limits by distributing the money to more than one political action committee (PAC) set up by the same union. The law now says that the money belongs to the teachers who earned it and that to contribute any of it to a PAC, each teacher must give the union written permission to take it. Moreover, all contributions made by multiple PACs established by a single union or its subsidiaries are considered as having been made by a single committee. PA 117 treats unions the same as the law treats corporations.

While PA 112 and PA 117 make for a new day in Michigan schools, more needs to be done. Teachers need tools to hold their union leadership--which grants itself huge annual pay increases at teachers' expense-more accountable for the way it behaves. One way to do that would be to eliminate automatic payroll deductions for the payment of union dues. If the Michigan Education Association benefits its members, the members will be happy to write their own personal checks and thereby save schools the administrative costs of collecting the money.

Ultimately, the state should liberate teachers from the burden of forced unionism and allow each teacher the freedom of choice to associate- or not to associate-with a union and its collective bargaining arrangements.

In 1994, the Michigan legislature and Governor John Engler put in place two important acts for public schools. Now it is up to the schools to see that parents, taxpayers, teachers, and children reap the maximum benefits.