With Democrats in control in Michigan, teachers win back key bargaining rights

Rynell Sturkey teaches first grade at Detroit’s Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation Wednesday that restores teacher bargaining rights that were legislated away more than a decade ago. It’s a big win for unions that have argued the laws put in place under Republican control limited the voices of school employees.

The governor’s signing comes during a year in which Democrats took control of both the Michigan Legislature and the governor’s office. And it came a week after Whitmer signed legislation that invested heavily in Michigan schools, especially in the state’s most vulnerable students.

The legislation, which received widespread support from teachers unions but was largely opposed by groups representing school administrators and school boards, would allow teachers to once again be able to bargain on issues such as performance evaluations, staff reductions, teacher placements, discipline, and classroom observations.

“We are sending a clear message that we value and respect them,” said Michigan Rep. Regina Weiss, a Democrat from Oak Park. “Teachers in Michigan will now once again have a voice in determining important employment conditions that impact their jobs and their classrooms, which will lead to stronger schools and improved student outcomes.” 

Among the groups that advocated against the legislation was the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents school districts in southeast Michigan. In a statement last month, the organization urged Whitmer to veto the legislation, saying it “makes it difficult for school administrators to effectively staff their schools and ultimately hurts students.”

House Republican Leader Matt Hall called the legislation “radical” in a statement after Whitmer endorsed it.

“Democrats are dismantling accountability metrics that help parents and teachers keep kids on track,” said Hall, a Republican from Richland Township. “They’re giving union bosses free rein to lord over the most important decisions at our schools. Teacher placement, performance evaluations, and communication with parents are all vital to creating an effective learning environment and fostering good working relationships with families.”

Whitmer also signed a handful of additional bills that are related to teachers. In a statement, she said that as a whole, all of the bills signed Wednesday will help Michigan recruit and retain skilled educators and counselors.  

Here’s a breakdown of what several of those bills will do:

  • It will be easier for teachers from other states to be eligible to teach in Michigan. They would need to have met certain requirements, such as teaching successfully for three years in the state from which they’re moving. Another bill makes it easier for out-of-state counselors to receive licenses in Michigan.
  • Language requiring teachers in the Detroit Public Schools Community District to be evaluated solely based on student performance, was struck. Advocates had argued that DPSCD teachers should be held to the same criteria as other teachers in the state whose evaluations are based on several factors, one of which is student performance.
  • While seniority cannot be used as a sole factor in decisions regarding filling vacancies, it can be used as a tie-breaker if a personnel decision involves two or more employees for the position and “all other factors distinguishing those employees from each other are equal.” The legislation also requires “clear and transparent procedures” for all personnel decisions. 

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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