The words "education reform" are frequently seen and heard on the editorial pages and airwaves of Michigan's news media. Mirroring a national discontent with student performance in the public school system, Michigan citizens have begun a discussion over the issues that affect the quality of their children's education. These issues are many and complex, but one issue that is rarely mentioned or even considered in any discussion about education reform is public employee union collective bargaining.

One issue that is rarely mentioned or even considered in any discussion about education reform is public employee union collective bargaining.

This Mackinac Center for Public Policy study is the first ever to systematically analyze the hundreds of collective bargaining agreements for every school district in a state. It examines collective bargaining's impact on Michigan public education and makes recommendations that school boards should incorporate into their union contracts to improve their ability to deliver quality education to students. The recommendations help school districts

  • loosen rigid work restrictions on employees so that administrators can put the right teacher with the right training in the right classroom at the right time;

  • free up scarce resources from counterproductive noneducational uses so that they can be redirected toward the primary goal of boosting student achievement;

  • protect the constitutional rights of all employees so that liability exposure can be limited and costly financial and legal penalties from employee lawsuits avoided; and

  • maintain the trust of parents and taxpayers in the local community by providing quality education while wisely managing public resources.

Part I of this study provides a background to collective bargaining in Michigan: its history, the laws that have shaped and are shaping it-especially Public Act 112 of 1994-and the challenges it presents to school board members, parents, taxpayers, teachers, and students. Recommendations to school boards on what to bargain and what not to bargain are also included.

Part II analyzes collective bargaining agreements-obtained using the Freedom of Information Act-from each of Michigan's 583 school districts, identifies eight key provisions that commonly hinder the educational process, and makes recommendations that school boards should adopt to improve their ability to provide the best education possible to their students. The eight provisions and recommendations are as follows:

  • Management rights clauses. Every collective bargaining agreement should specifically detail the rights and responsibilities that remain vested in the school board. These clauses should establish that school management is the school board's responsibility.

  • Exclusive bargaining representative clauses. Exclusive representation means that the school district must deal solely with the recognized or certified union regarding employee wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. School boards should not agree to any contract language that prohibits teachers from exploring opportunities with other professional organizations, or requires union permission for them to do so.

  • Union security clauses. Union security clauses subject school employees to mandatory union dues payments. School districts should not become union collection agents and enforcers by agreeing to the termination of employees who fail to pay dues money. Employees' constitutional right to limit dues payments should be protected. Unions should be required to earn the voluntary financial support of school employees.

  • "Just cause" discipline and discharge clauses. "Just cause" refers to standards of conduct that an employee must breach before being disciplined or discharged. Because "just cause" proceedings are subject to elaborate legal procedures, school boards should beware of language that expands the "just cause" concept too broadly to include probationary teachers, who are still being evaluated for their competency.

  • Teacher evaluation clauses. School officials must be able to evaluate the competency and performance of each teacher in order to judge how well he uses his skills to help students learn and achieve. School boards must ensure that teacher evaluation language serves the primary consideration of avoiding any potential harm to students from unqualified or otherwise unfit personnel remaining in the classroom.

  • Seniority-based salary schedules. Most Michigan public school teachers are paid according to their years of experience and level of education. School boards should replace seniority-based salary schedules with performance-based pay scales that reward outstanding teachers and encourage innovation.

  • Health care benefits. Teacher salaries and benefits take up an average of 82 percent of school district budgets. School boards should seek opportunities to competitively bid employee health benefits and channel the savings into the classroom.

  • Class size clauses. Proposals to reduce student-to-teacher ratios are costly, needlessly restrictive, and have not been proven to significantly improve student performance. School boards should decline to negotiate class size limits.

Part II also reviews seven court rulings on collective bargaining agreement issues and advises school districts how to avoid contract provisions that may expose them to costly legal and financial penalties resulting from employee lawsuits. Employees' workplace rights are explained so school districts can understand their role in protecting those rights.

The study's appendices compare costs and benefits of various health care plans, and present contract and financial data from the survey of Michigan's 583 school districts.