News Story

Analysis: Detroit Students Hostages to the Union

A "multidimensional" crisis that's been unfolding for decades may finally be coming to a head in the Detroit Public Schools: The district is virtually bankrupt, the schools are unsafe and they generate the worst student achievement results in the nation. And now, Robert Bobb, the governor-appointed emergency financial manager, is waving the white flag, asking the state to borrow against future revenues to bail out the district. Doing so would be unfortunate for both students and state taxpayers.

The district is rife with dysfunctions — administrative mismanagement, rampant corruption and an inept school board, to name a few. But perhaps the worst is a suffocating collective bargaining contract and recalcitrant union leadership that prevent the district from taking advantage of what few resources it still has.

This is exemplified by a current issue related to substitute teachers. Apparently, the district had been using some of them to do something not explicitly permitted by the union contract: instruct students. To pressure the district to increase the pay of unionized substitutes, Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, issued a command for them to stop developing lesson plans, grading assignments, recording grades or attending parent-teacher conferences.

In his marching orders Johnson actually acknowledged that his tactic contradicts the district's primary purpose: "I truly regret the necessity to take this action because it is not in the best interest of our students."

The union boss has provided an excellent example of something Robert Bobb has often noted, that too often the district is run for the benefit of the adults, not the children it's supposed to educate.

This example of union obstructionism is hardly unique. The DFT vehemently opposed the creation of new public charter schools in the city and the use of high-quality teachers available through the "Teach for America" program.

Given all these dysfunctions, Bobb's capitulation on the fiscal front is understandable. Practically every reform he's tried has run into an iron wall erected by the union, armed with a 150-page contract that covers every action by every employee from "Art Therapists" to "Transition Specialists."

True, this contract was negotiated and signed by Bobb and the district management, so they are partially responsible. However, they did so hobbled by a state labor law that grossly tilts the negotiating table in ways that benefit unions, and an Emergency Financial Management statute that fails to give managers the authority they really need.

Under current state law, Robert Bobb does not have the authority to void these contracts and negotiate reasonable ones. Until that changes, no one should expect any real improvement in Detroit schools. That's unfortunate, because it leaves just one entity that does have such power, and — absent irresponsible state borrowing to keep the wreck rolling for a couple more years — may soon have an opportunity to exercise it: A federal bankruptcy court.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.