Michigan on Brink of Massive Education Reform

On Friday September 9, Michigan State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) announced he would introduce legislation giving teachers in his state right to work protections. The bill already has the support of Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall.) Richardville’s Freedom to Teach Act would allow teachers in Michigan to choose whether or not to join a union. Currently, Michigan educators are forced to pay union dues simply to keep their jobs.

In his press release Richardville said he wants to “keep more money in the pockets of teachers.” The Majority Leader noted that the money taken in the form of forced dues “belongs to the teacher that earned it [and that] it is up to them to contribute based on personal choice, not because the school district extracts it from paychecks and deposits it in the hands of the union bosses.”

The bill is part of several education reforms giving more choice to teachers, parents, and children. Among other reforms are bills which would allow the expansion of charter schools and allow access to online learning. Last week, the Michigan House passed a bill, which would not go as far as Richarville’s but would bar the state from collecting dues for teachers unions.

Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland), the bill's primary sponsor told The Detroit News, "I don't understand how giving people money back in their paycheck is a bad thing … It makes [unions] more accountable.” Yet that may be precisely what the union and its allies don’t want. Leading opposition to the bill is Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), whom Richardville criticized for wanting to “to continue to see hundreds of dollars removed from teachers pay to support a $200,000-a-year plus salary for union bosses who haven't seen the inside of a class room in years.”

With the backing of the leaders in both houses Freedom to Teach is likely to pass—even without help from Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who recently said during a televised town hall meeting that Richardville’s bill is not on his agenda. This is the same position Governor Snyder holds on more encompassing right to work legislation for the state, but he has said that he would sign a right to work bill if it came to his desk.

The Governor’s reticence on labor reform may be due to his trying to muster support for other priorities, including a controversial publicly financed bridge from Canada to Detroit.

The Senate Minority Leader has warned Snyder that Freedom to Teach could jeopardize cooperation with the bridge project. Whitmer told the Michigan news website Mlive.com, "If they really want to reach across the aisle and try to build support . . . they've got to take some of these issues (Right to Teach) off the table or we're going to get mired in partisan battles and that doesn't help anybody."

Ironically if Democrats oppose the bridge because of Freedom to Teach they will harm other unions. Buried in the pending legislation authorizing the bridge are handouts to organized labor such as hiring set-asides for union members as consultants for the project. The project would also be subject to state prevailing wage laws—which generally set wages closer to inflated union wages rather than market pay rates and can increase costs by up to 22 percent.

Aside from inter-union squabbles caused by pulling support for the bridge as a result of Freedom to Teach, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest teachers union, may have problems if right to work is given to teachers. Tom Garnet of the Mackinac Center reports that John Ellsworth, a former MEA local president, estimates that between 10 percent and 40 percent of MEA’s membership could leave if given the choice, because “some don't think they are getting real value from the $90 per month in union dues” teachers are forced to contribute. This isn’t idle speculation. In Wisconsin, the teacher’s union had to lay off 40 percent of its staff after Governor Scott Walker (R) ended automatic payroll deductions of union dues.

Why would rank-and-file union membership consider paying dues a poor value? Maybe because the MEA has increasingly been more focused on partisan politics than on education. It was one of the chief drivers of recall efforts against Republican lawmakers this past summer. Out of roughly 20 recall efforts, including the Governor and Richardville, the union only managed to gather enough signatures for a recall of the House Education Committee Chairman—after spending a quarter of a million dollars on the signature effort.

A reduction of the MEA’s power would be good news for parents and children. The union has been opposed to reforms that increase choice and accountability. On its website, the union voices its oppositions to one bill because it “allow[s] districts to hire/place teachers with demonstrated effectiveness and qualifications” and because “experience [longevity] will not be a factor if a district is reducing its force. Individual performance will instead be the major factor in staffing decisions.”

Richardville and other Michigan lawmakers who are trying to curb teachers unions’ privileges will face stiff opposition. If they are successful, Michigan could see an education system that puts teacher performance, parental choice, and children’s welfare ahead of union political agendas and forced dues.