Every once in a while something comes along that vividly captures what is wrong in public schools today and the challenges faced by those of us working to improve them.

A September 10, 2002, letter written by MEA union president Lu Battaglieri to public school officials is a perfect example. The letter is breathtaking in its clarity of how politicized government schools have become. It also reveals the bureaucratic command-and-control mentality of the government school-union partnership that distrusts parental involvement in the most basic education decision of all—where we send our children to school.

The letter is a must read for anyone interested in public school reform in general and HB 4800 (a pending charter school regulation bill) in particular. In heavy-handed language typical of the union (see other examples of MEA conduct here), Mr. Battaglieri claims that the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) interfered with the MEA by asking school officials to tell teachers and other public school employees to lobby against HB 4800. This rift illustrates both the complexity of the bill and the politics involved in the government school system.

For several years, although most people realize that labor unions and school managers have conflicting objectives, the MASB and the MEA have formed an effective partnership against meaningful education reform. Both, as elaborated below, have interests in preventing parents from choosing schools other than the traditional government schools these two organizations represent. The letter verifies the following principles that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has stressed for years.

1. Although typically thought of as the “lift the cap on charter schools” bill, the real purpose of HB 4800 from the union’s perspective is to cripple the charter school movement in Michigan, both by saddling charter schools with excessive regulation and by limiting the number of charter schools.

Competition is a threat to irresponsible unions and under-performing schools. In a competitive environment, unions are unable to bleed public schools with excessive overhead for high-cost, non-instructional staff such as custodians, cooks, and bus drivers which constitute a large percentage of MEA union membership. School officials are forced to tighten their belts and channel more money into the classroom to compete with charter schools, 65 percent of which have waiting lists for students.

In the letter, Mr. Battaglieri raises the threat of Bay Mills Community College (BMCC), a tribal community college whose district boundaries encompass the entire state. Since community colleges can charter an unlimited number of schools in their district, Bay Mills has the ability to become a chartering powerhouse, a situation ostensibly unforeseen by the drafters of the initial charter law. Public universities have long ago reached their cap of 150 total charter schools, and the demand is unceasing.

Ironically, the MEA believes the “lift the cap” bill will actually result in fewer charter schools than the current law permits. Mr. Battaglieri states “I cannot emphasize enough that inaction on this bill has already caused a number of charter schools to be authorized by Bay Mills Community College. In fact, 12 charter schools have been authorized by BMCC and 41 others await approval for this school year, 2002-2003.” He makes it clear that HB 4800 will end this situation “before Bay Mills Community College floods the state with charter schools.”

It is also clear that Mr. Battaglieri believes HB 4800 will saddle charter schools with a host of new regulations. Union officials and charter school competitors (traditional public schools) are the most energetic proponents of new regulations, designed to address alleged shortcomings in charter schools. Mr. Battaglieri lists 9 new regulations HB 4800 will implement and then states “There are many other requirements that are too numerous to mention here. Thus, I am also attaching a three-page document that outlines all of the requirements written into HB 4800.”

When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy introduced the concept of charter schools to Michigan in 1988, one of the main purposes was to allow these schools to operate relatively free of the crushing bureaucracy that is killing public education today, and which robs teachers and administrators of the joy and professionalism of their important work. Now comes the MEA union—which represents teachers at only one of 150 university-chartered schools—to make it more difficult to start and operate a legitimate public school academy.

2. The government school system, in partnership with school employee labor unions, forms a vast political lobbying organization that uses public tax dollars and public employees to stifle genuine education reform.

The letter also illustrates several ways in which labor unions and government schools work together to prevent reform. As mentioned above, both the unions and the government schools have interests at stake when parents are empowered to choose the best and safest school from a variety of public and private options. Students take their state funding with them when they transfer to a different school district or a charter school; approximately $6,700 in state funds follow them. This creates a competitive dynamic that fosters greater customer service for parents, but also presents challenges to schools to manage their money more wisely than in pre-Proposal A times, when endless property tax increases fomented an Engler-led property tax rebellion.

Both the MASB and the MEA are funded by school tax dollars. Most local school boards fund the MASB through annual dues (although some refuse to support it). Although not required to by law, most school boards also include clauses in labor contracts that force teachers and other employees to financially support the union. Many public school boards also purchase health care insurance from an MEA subsidiary, which brings in approximately $600 million each year to the union conglomerate. When compulsory union dues are included, the MEA conglomerate has gross income of approximately $700 million each year.

In his letter, Mr. Battaglieri emphasizes the effectiveness of the MASB/MEA partnership, and expresses his shock that the MASB would deviate slightly from their mutually agreed game plan. He criticizes the MASB not only for opposing HB 4800, but also for encouraging “legislators to consider arguments and actions that would diminish our [the MEA’s] ability to bargain contracts within charter schools.” Imagine that! An association of school board members trying to make it easier for school boards to run their schools. The sad fact is that the anti-reform alliance makes this momentary departure into the realm of common sense a rarity.

Using public school teachers and administrators as political activists—often on school district time and using school district resources—the MASB and MEA mobilize their forces to oppose the very reform efforts that are bringing hope and opportunity to tens of thousands of Michigan children.

3. There is little hope for public education unless compulsory unionism can be replaced with voluntary unionism for Michigan public school employees.

At the root of the problem in public education is the system of compulsory unionism for public school employees that was adopted in its current form in 1965. Although 7 states prohibit unionism for public school teachers and 10 states make unionization voluntary, Michigan law forces public schools to bargain with unions and requires all employees in a collective bargaining unit to adhere to a contract whether or not they believe the union represents the best interests of teachers, students, or parents.

Although unions themselves are not necessarily harmful to public education, the system of compulsory unionism is. It creates an environment in which union leaders need not earn the support of all union members, and this lack of accountability leads to disproportionate political power that advances union interests at the expense of parents and children—the most important customers of public education. It also prevents the best teachers from being rewarded commensurate with their superior performance, and protects bad teachers from being fired.

As this letter illustrates, Mr. Battaglieri and the MEA are harming public education and Michigan children by shielding government schools from the competitive forces that spur continuous quality improvement everywhere they exist. Ultimately we will need to replace compulsory unionism with voluntary unionism before Michigan public education can begin to provide the level of quality our children need and deserve.

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Joseph P. Overton, J.D., is senior vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland, Michigan-based research and educational institute. He is the author of studies and numerous articles on labor law and education, and he provides fiscal consultation for Michigan public school officials.