In July 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed a series of reforms designed to make it easier for school officials and principals to retain and reward effective teachers. Since teacher quality has a significant impact on student learning, these laws could have a large impact on the educational performance on the 1.5 million Michigan students who attend public schools.[1] Among other things, the reforms included:[2]

  • Giving districts full control over teacher placement policies;

  • Requiring districts to establish new teacher evaluation practices that incorporate student learning growth;

  • Forbidding districts from using seniority as the determining factor when layoff or recall decisions are made;

  • Allowing districts to remove ineffective teachers more easily by relaxing tenure rules.

The Legislature gave districts full control over teacher placement by prohibiting districts and their unions from negotiating over related policies. Specifically, districts were given the autonomy to create their own teacher placement, evaluation and layoff and recall policies without having to get approval from the local union. These prohibited subjects of bargaining were to become “the sole authority of the public school employer to decide.”[3]

These reforms did not take immediate effect, and districts were required only to adhere to the new laws when their then current collective bargaining agreements expired.[4]

Given the extent of these reforms, district unions may have been reluctant to renegotiate contracts. However, Public Act 54, passed earlier in 2011, provided a financial incentive for unions to renegotiate by prohibiting any increases in teacher salary, including automatic “step increases,” if the district was operating under an expired contract.[5] Moreover, employees would be required to pay for any increase in benefit costs, such as health insurance premiums, after a contract expired.

With varying contract expiration dates among school districts, implementation of the July 2011 reforms has been staggered, with districts implementing the collective bargaining reforms at different times. With the added incentive for unions to negotiate new contracts, however, many districts renegotiated contracts that expired after July of 2011, making the new state laws described above in effect for them.

More than two years since the reforms became law, no analysis of these important reforms has been conducted, leaving policymakers and the public with little notion of what these reforms may have accomplished.

There is reason to suspect that the implementation of these reforms has been uneven: None of the new laws summarized above proscribed disciplinary action for districts that failed to comply. In other words, school and union officials faced no repercussions if they continued using policies that failed to adhere to the new laws.

Initial evidence of this behavior can be seen in the Mackinac Center’s 2012 survey of school districts’ use of “merit pay,” which was required by a 2009 law.[6] It required districts to make job performance “a significant factor in determining compensation,” though the law did not impose any penalties on noncompliant districts.[7] The survey found that about 80 percent of districts continued to pay teachers based on seniority and academic credentials, not teaching effectiveness. Plus, many of the districts that gave teachers performance-based pay provided only small amounts — a couple districts paid high-performing teachers just $1 in merit bonuses.[8]

This paper surveys the most recent teachers union contracts of Michigan’s 200 largest school districts in an attempt to understand how districts implemented the 2011 reforms pertaining to teacher quality. This paper is not an all-encompassing legal review of those contracts, but rather a limited policy survey. The examples reported in this paper are presented as evidence of the types of difficulties that exist in implementing the 2011 reforms. Whether districts identified within these pages are actually in violation of the law is beyond the scope of this report.

The implications of these findings for school-level administrators are discussed. School principals may find themselves receiving conflicting information about their ability to manage teachers in their buildings. For example, principals may work in a district with a collective bargaining contract that still states teacher placement decisions must be based on seniority. This conflicts with state law, and may be addressed in a “letter of agreement” between the district and union or an appendix or other addition to the teacher contract. This paper may help some of these school leaders understand what policies they are allowed to pursue based on the 2011 reforms.

Finally, policymakers may also be interested in the findings of this report. If school districts are not implementing the 2011 reforms in ways that policymakers originally envisioned, the entire theoretical justification for these reforms — providing school leaders with the tools to improve teacher quality — may be in jeopardy. Policymakers may need to consider whether additional action is needed to fully implement these reforms.