Study: School Choice Threatens School Employee Unions’ Financial and Political Clout

MIDLAND—Allowing parents more freedom to choose the schools their children attend poses a direct threat to the political and financial dominance of two of Michigan's most powerful labor unions, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Michigan Federation of Teachers (MFT), according to a study released today by the Mackinac Centerfor Public Policy.

The reason: School employee unions have not been able to organize large numbers of employees of private and charter schools, and those are the schools likely to experience increases in student enrollment and education jobs if school choice measures are expanded.

Current school choice efforts in Michigan include a recommendation to lift the cap on the number of charter schools and a possible ballot initiative that would strike the state's constitutional prohibition against tuition vouchers and tax credits.

"Apparently, the virtual monopoly power of school employee unions over K-12 education in Michigan comes to an abrupt halt at the entrances to charter and private schools," write Matthew J. Brouillette, assistant director of education policy, and Jeffrey R. Williams, an adjunct scholar with the Center. "This may be why school employee labor unions so strenuously oppose the expansion of school choice in the state.

"Every child enrolled in a Michigan private or charter school helps create anon-dues-paying teaching job in a non-unionized school," add Brouillette and Williams. To date, all 583 traditional public school districts have unionized teachers, but only 5 of 139 charter schools and only 2 of more than 1,000 private schools are unionized.

The analysts have an explanation for the huge disparity. "Studies in Michigan and across the nation indicate that charter and private school teachers are willing to trade the job security of a union contract for greater flexibility, quicker promotion, less paperwork, and—in the case of some charter schools—higher pay," they write.

Another explanation, according to charter and private school teachers, is that in contrast to public schools where great emphasis is placed on politics, pay, and job security, the focus in charter and private schools is more on mission and excellence. "Unionism doesn't drive private education," according to Glen Walstra, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools. "Our people have made up their minds that money is not the primary reason they do their jobs. Service to the child and the school are more important."

Brouillette and Williams write that the politicization of public schools by the unions has created a network of financial and political influence that the MEA and MFT have strong financial and political incentives to preserve. "Union political operatives are involved at all levels of school governance and finance," the analysts say. "They contribute compulsory union dues to candidates who promise to pursue union interests. They lobby the legislature, influence school board elections and proceedings, help select school superintendents, and establish the criteria for who may or may not become a teacher. In fact, collective bargaining agreements are all-encompassing and affect the day-to-day operations of local schools in many ways."

Brouillette and Williams say school choice threatens to break up this monopoly. "The financial strength and political influence of school employee labor unions is directly related to their ability to acquire and retain dues-paying members. To the unions, the loss of members represents a loss of financial and political power. They understand that if families are allowed to effectively choose non-unionized schools, the dues-paying public school employees will be able to do the same and there will be more jobs in non-unionized schools."

The analysts conclude this "provides a clue to union support for the current barriers to school choice, including the Michigan constitutional ban on K-12 tuition vouchers and tax credits, and the cap on the number of charter public schools." They add it is likely that "labor unions will continue to oppose legislation and ballot initiatives that seek to provide families—and also teachers—with greater educational opportunities and freedom to choose safer and better schools for their children."

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a Midland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute. The study The Impact of School Choice on School Employee Labor Unions  is available by calling (989)631-0900 or at no charge via