LANSING — A state representative who sponsored some of the Michigan school reform bills from a few years ago said people in districts who blatantly violate the law should face "criminal charges."
State Rep. Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia, made the comment yesterday during a Mackinac Center for Public Policy event titled, "Roadblocks to Reform? A Review of Union Contracts In Michigan Schools."
Up to 60 percent of Michigan's largest districts are violating the law by including illegal provisions in union contracts, according to a recent study by Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center.
In 2011, the state sponsored a series of reforms that limited what unions and districts could bargain over. Teacher tenure was reformed, layoffs could no longer be based only on seniority, and student growth had to be the main factor in employee evaluations.
Spalding said there are plenty of clear examples that show violations of the reform laws like teachers abusing alcohol and drugs in Bay City, preference given to non-Christian teachers in Ferndale, and a teacher rating system for L'Anse Creuse where almost all employees were rated "effective," which complies with the law but allows layoffs to be based on seniority.
Many contracts have illegal provisions that are known to districts and unions, but they are left in place in case state laws change, which would allow those sections to then take immediate effect.
Rep. Yonker said the purpose of the education reform bills was simple.
"The intent of the legislation was to allow bargaining for teacher wages and benefits and nothing else," he said, adding that union misinformation exacerbates confusion about the reform efforts.
Rep. Yonker served as a school board member in Caledonia for eight years, which he said made him aware of how little control the administration had in classrooms, particularly related to tenure.
"There were bad teachers in that school that I wanted to get removed and couldn't do it because ... the tenure board overruled it," Rep. Yonker said
That doesn't hurt one student, it hurts many, he said, because "one teacher can affect hundreds of lives."
Rep. Yonker said the reforms were needed because collective bargaining had been abused. Administrators were limited from making decisions, some districts only gave teacher ratings of "effective" or "highly effective," and personnel decisions for hiring and firing were based exclusively on seniority rather than how good employees were at their job.
Specificity in the language of bills will help ensure that reforms are protected from legal action and that they are properly enforced, he said. Additionally, expanding the reforms to specifically limit bargaining strictly to wages and benefits would help, as would withholding school aid payments for districts that do not comply with the law, and attaching "best practices" funding to compliance.
Rep. Yonker said ensuring Michigan has the best teachers in the classroom is important because 37 percent of Michigan students are non-proficient in reading in 4th grade and it does not improve much by 8th grade.
"Those students will struggle their whole life," Rep. Yonker said. "We want to support our schools and make them successful, but we want the money to be used effectively. That's what the state is trying to do."