Parents, teachers, and administrators share widespread dissatisfaction with public school education. Many place the blame for poor education on a lack of parental involvement, insufficient funds, poor teacher preparation, and so on. Few have focused on a major contributing factor to this failure: unionized teachers and collective bargaining.

The collective bargaining process both at and away from the negotiating table has a great impact on the cost of education and the ability of school boards-the elected bodies responsible for each community's K-12 education-to educate and provide support services to students.

School board members have found themselves besieged by union demands, the consequences of which they often do not fully understand. This study will help them as well as parents, administrators, and other decision makers to improve the collective bargaining process that impacts Michigan's public schools.

From the 1964 inception of public sector collective bargaining to the present, local boards of education have often been ill-equipped to deal with this crucial process. Whether through a lack of understanding of finance, confusion over the nuances of contract language, or ignorance of the high-pressure strategies and tactics used by public employee unions, school board members have found themselves besieged by union demands, the consequences of which they often do not fully understand.

Teachers-except for those trained by the unions themselves-also have little understanding of the process and typically rely on union leadership for information during bargaining. Citizens who support the school system financially and whose children are educated there are often confused and, at times, misled by contract negotiation rhetoric.

As a result, local boards of education frequently agree to terms and conditions of employment that are not in the best interests of students in order to avoid criticism, achieve "labor peace," or simply "to get a contract" regardless of the long-term effect.

The potent effect of illegal teacher strikes, which school boards were unable to effectively counteract, finally compelled the legislature to enact Public Act 112 of 1994, which now assesses financial penalties for illegal strikes. There has not been a strike since.

But absence of strikes does not eliminate or even reduce the need for school boards and teachers to understand collective bargaining's effect on educational quality. This study will help them as well as parents, administrators, and other decision makers to understand and improve the collective bargaining process that impacts Michigan's public schools.

Nothing less than the education of our children is at stake.

Peter A. Patterson
Grand Rapids, Michigan

August 1998

Peter A. Patterson is an attorney with 25 years of direct collective bargaining experience with Michigan school districts.