If lower enrollment forces your local school district to make tough teacher layoff decisions, how should it decide who goes and who stays? Should the decision be based on protecting the best and brightest teachers from the budget ax, or on formulaic union rules slicing whoever’s name is next on the seniority list regardless of competence?
That was one of the issues at stake in a recently adopted package of bills intended to reform teacher tenure, evaluations, personnel policies and collective bargaining privileges. Along the way, it provided some examples of the frequently heard complaint about the excessive power of self-serving special interests in the legislative process.
The special interest in this case was a government employee union, the Michigan Education Association. The MEA scored a number of victories in watering down the proposed reforms, but was turned back when it tried to insert one back-door provision that potentially would have made the whole package meaningless. Significantly, the item involved a piece of union power the reforms would strip away.
A minor excursion into the weeds of legislative process is needed to explain. The reform package contained four bills that were “tie-barred” together, meaning that all of them must pass in order for any to become law. One of these, House Bill 4628, amended the law closest to the MEA’s interests: the one forcing school districts to engage in collective bargaining, and forbidding them from telling the union to take a hike no matter how unreasonable its demands.
Specifically, this bill added a new item onto a short list of things the union may not bargain over. Current law already bans bargaining over privatization, the use of volunteers, school schedules and a few other subjects. House Bill 4628 would add staffing decisions to that list, including priorities for who goes or stays in any layoff, and methods for assessing teacher “effectiveness.” In other words, it prohibited the union and school districts from bargaining away some of the very reforms that the rest of package would enact.
So here’s the “special interest at work” example: Every time one of the other three bills in this reform package made it to the House floor — six times altogether as the House and Senate ping-ponged different versions between the chambers — a Democratic legislator attempted to eliminate the tie-bar to the “prohibited bargaining subject” bill, meaning the other bills could become law even if this one did not. Three of these attempts were made by the minority vice chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield.
The MEA gets good service from Democrats because it dominates their primary elections: It is almost impossible for an individual opposed by the union to be nominated as a Democratic candidate. The union then uses its wealth and the “volunteer” work of 150,000 self-interested public school employees to help elect its MEA-approved candidates from both parties in November general elections — which explains why it often gets good service from Republicans too.
As mentioned, the union’s political investment wasn’t enough to win this one provision, or to defeat the reform package outright, but it did score some important victories in watering it down. (For example, see House Tries, GOP Senate Denies, Prevention of Poor-Teacher 'Rubber Rooms.') Nevertheless, the MEA is arguably the most politically powerful organization in the state, using money it extracts from Michigan government’s largest spending item to insulate the public school monopoly from competition, keep the perks and privileges flowing to its members and preserve its own power.
The teacher tenure and related bills are now awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature, which is expected. They provide some genuine reform, although not as much as originally proposed. The MEA called this “a sad day for Michigan students,” yet for all its talk about doing what's best for students and teachers, the thing this government employee union fought hardest to preserve was its own power.