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Michigan teachers face new challenges imposed by legislature

Posted by attorney Travis Dafoe

This summer Michigan’s legislature changed the rules for teachers on issues ranging from health care to collective bargaining.

First, the legislature mandated that all public bodies can only pay an amount they set for health benefits (a “hard cap"). At first glance this seems like a reasonable bill passed to slow government spending. However, the law contains an opt-out provision that allows public bodies to not enact the hard cap and instead opt for a 80% employer and 20% employee health care compensation model. Again this appears reasonable in the face of escalating costs. However, the legislature provided an ultimate opt-out provision that applies to all public employers except teachers. All public bodies can simply ignore the new law, except schools. So, teachers are left as the only group of public employees that is require by law to pay a specific amount for their health care premiums. Why are teachers singled out? It also seems somewhat punitive as Teachers had bargained lower health care costs in lieu of other compensation. Furthermore, the average employee only contributes between 18% for single and 28% for family coverage. Interestingly according to a survey of all workers, 53% percent of those receiving family coverage and 65% of those receiving single coverage pay less than 25%. (2011 Kaiser HRET survey) So, while teachers may have been on the better end of the spectrum they were in no way significantly better off, especially when salary is factored in. Furthermore, the amount teachers pay did vary greatly school by school, some schools were nearly at 20% before the law and, therefore, will see the smallest increase in what they pay for health care.

The bills passed this summer also limit what teachers are allowed to collectively bargain over. Teachers in Michigan may no longer bargain over discipline, seniority, health benefits (as previously mentioned). Additionally, teachers had been just-cause employees. This means that the employer could only terminate them if they had a legitimate reason or just cause. Under new law, Michigan teachers can now be terminated for any reason so long as it is not arbitrary.

There are many that argue these changes were needed to get rid of bad teachers. This argument defies logic, as there was never a law protecting bad teachers. The law previously required the school to prove the teacher was not good. Now, no proof is needed, so now will we lose good teachers who make the hard decisions to challenge their students even if some parents don’t think their student should have so much homework. Will our teachers be too afraid of getting fired to do what may not be popular, but what is educationally sound.

Regardless of how you feel about collective bargaining rights, the most important goal of public schools should always be to provide the best education possible for our children. Treating teachers fairly is not antithetical to providing the best possible education.

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