Looking to Michigan

Detroit teachers unions won’t be hurt by the Janus decision. They already survived.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Unionized teachers at the Southwest Detroit Community School gathered last month to demand a new contract.

Faced with a looming Supreme Court decision that could adversely affect unions, some labor leaders from across the country are looking to Michigan for a way forward.

“We’re constantly deluged by staffers in non right-to-work states,” said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the public teachers union. “They ask, ‘how did you stay alive?’”

Michigan’s legislature passed so-called right-to-work legislation in 2012, dealing a blow to the coffers and membership of public sector unions, including those that represent teachers.

At issue are the fees paid by all workers, including those who are not unionized, in some union workplaces. The fees cover services, such as legal representation, that are provided by the union to every worker regardless of their membership status. In right-to-work states, such such mandatory contributions are prohibited.

Now, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision in Janus v. AFSCME that would expand right-to-work to the 22 states where it doesn’t already exist.

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who says he shouldn’t have to pay union fees because he disagrees with the political activities of the union that represents his workplace, AFSCME. He filed suit in 2015 to overturn a legal precedent established in 1977, in Detroit, when the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that these fees were constitutional.

Detroit’s teachers union, which recently negotiated for its members $30 million in bonuses and salary increases, is evidence that teachers unions won’t likely disappear even if the Supreme Court votes to expand right-to-work. But drops in union membership — MEA saw a 25 percent decline — have some observers looking to Michigan to understand the possible implications of Janus.

“We’re already in a post-Janus world,” Crim said.

Before the law went in to place, union dues could be deducted directly from teacher paychecks. That’s now illegal, so Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has become a dues collector in addition to her other duties.

Despite devoting a “big part” of her time to collections, she said that teachers are less likely to pay for union membership when it doesn’t happen automatically.

That’s why unions in Michigan have ramped up their efforts to recruit teachers, and why unions in states that could be impacted by Janus are preparing to do the same.

If a ruling in favor of Janus has any impact in Michigan and other right-to-work states, it will be indirect. Problems for national teachers unions could mean trouble for local affiliates, which receive some funding from their national umbrella group. In Detroit, such funding is minimal.

The National Education Association, of which MEA is a subsidiary, expects to lose about 10 percent of its members and $50 million in revenue if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, according to a report published in the 74.

In this scenario, the national union “would certainly downsize, as would revenue and support that we receive from NEA,” Crim said.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, teachers unions won’t be disappearing any time soon. The Michigan Education Association remains the largest public union in the state with about 140,000 members, and has said that membership has stabilized and may even be growing.

When right-to-work passed in Michigan in 2012, legislators “felt that would destroy unions in Michigan, specifically us, Crim said. “That hasn’t happened.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.