News Story

Outgoing Leader Was Disastrous for Teachers Union

MEA lost tens of thousands of members and power under president Steve Cook

Steve Cook has stepped down as president of the state’s largest teachers union. His six years in the position coincided with a Republican “trifecta” – Republican control of the state House, Senate and governorship.

During their years of legislative dominance, especially early on, GOP majorities used their control to enact a number of reforms that diminished the power and resources of the Michigan Education Association.

Cook was elected MEA president in April 2011 and assumed the role in September of that year. His retirement was effective Sept. 1, 2017, according to the state of Michigan.

Cook and MEA officials did not respond to emails seeking comment on the former president’s tenure.

One policy analyst who has written extensively on the subject characterized Cook’s record as a failure from the union’s point of view.

“Steve Cook’s tenure could be viewed as one of consistent failure, at least when considering the union lost numerous important legislative battles during his time,” said Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“But that might be unfair, because there wasn’t much the union could do to prevent those reforms anyway,” he said. “Either way, there’s no doubt that Cook served during perhaps the organization’s most tumultuous period ever.”

Here are some of the major school reforms enacted while Cook headed the teachers union:

July 2011: Legislators passed a law that prohibited school districts from making employee layoff decisions solely on the basis of seniority. Unions have historically demanded that school district contracts include LIFO provisions, which means “last in, first out.” As a result, less effective teachers who have more years on the job were retained while more effective teachers with less time were laid off.

Rather than base layoff decisions on teacher quality, some districts went so far as to use digits in individuals’ Social Security numbers as a tiebreaker. The 2011 law instead required administrators to consider a teacher’s classroom effectiveness when making these decisions.

September 2011: A new law limited school districts’ ability to give employees Cadillac health insurance benefits paid for almost entirely at taxpayer expense. It required school employees to contribute 20 percent toward the cost of their benefits. Alternatively, the law set a hard cap on the district’s aggregate cost of providing these benefits.

This was a blow to the Michigan Education Special Services Association (MESSA), an MEA subsidiary that for years has sold high-cost coverage to districts. Some districts have kept their costly MESSA coverage even with the new law, effectively shifting a large share of the cost from taxpayers to employees.

For example, Livonia Public Schools stayed with MESSA. In 2016-17 the school district paid $12,800 in premiums for each teacher with a family plan, while the teacher had to contribute $5,650, according to information provided by the district.

Other districts, such as Dansville Schools, saved money by dropping MESSA in favor of less expensive coverage. Superintendent Amy Hodgson said dropping the MEA subsidiary’s coverage not only saved the district $250,000 per year, but it also saved Dansville teachers from having to pay any premium.

December 2011: Legislators phased out a cap on the number of public charter schools in Michigan, eliminating it altogether as of 2015. Previously, only 150 charters could be authorized by state universities, the most popular type of authorizing agency.

While union officials and their allies claimed that eliminating the cap would trigger an uncontrolled “Wild West” expansion of charters, that’s not what happened. There were 247 charter schools in 2011. That number grew to 277 in 2013 and 298 in 2014. In 2017, there were 300 charter schools. Few charter schools are unionized.

December 2012: Michigan became the 25th state to adopt a right-to-work law. This prohibited school districts from making employees pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. The MEA had 117,265 dues-paying members as of August 2012. By August 2016, that number had dropped to 90,609, a decline of 26,656 dues-payers. The change has cost the union an estimated $16.8 million annually.

June 2017: A pension reform law halted new school employee enrollment in a state-run defined benefit pension system that had accumulated $29.1 billion in unfunded taxpayer liabilities. New teachers now have a choice of two options. The first is to receive generous employer contributions to their own defined contribution 401(k)-type accounts. The other is to enroll in a revamped pension system that requires much greater employee cost-sharing and places some of the burden of any future underfunding on teachers themselves.

The MEA bitterly opposed pension reform despite the skyrocketing burden that persistent state underfunding was imposing on school districts. For example, Holly Area Schools saw its annual required pension expense jump 87 percent in just four years, going from $2.06 million in 2011 to $3.86 million in 2015.

The union appeared to ignore this problem. For example, as part of the MEA’s ongoing campaign to persuade the public that teachers are grossly underpaid, an item on its website highlighted a Holly teacher who claimed to need a second job to make ends meet. Nowhere did the item mention the district’s growing pension expense or how it limited a district's ability to pay teachers more.

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.