Don’t claim victory in Michigan yet

Education reformers might be tempted to think they can claim victory in Michigan because voters overwhelmingly rejected a push from the teacher unions and others to engrave collective bargaining in the state constitution. Surely, the unions overreached here, but they won elsewhere on Election Day in the Wolverine State.

Education reform in Michigan suffered a crucial setback on Tuesday.

Or, more specifically, in Detroit, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—all of them school districts that have become educational wastelands and where the state had installed emergency managers to take control and (more importantly) to tear up union contracts to get the job done. In Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, that meant converting the school districts into charter-school districts. In Detroit, it meant keeping power out of the hands of a school board that one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence.”

This week, 53 percent of the state’s voters repealed the emergency-manager law, a victory for public-employee unions (teachers included, of course) that had spent the summer gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot. And that may unravel the boldest measures undertaken by these managers.

Detroit’s emergency chief, Roy Roberts, technically maintains control over the district’s budget, but he wrote to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder this week indicating that he may soon step down due to the response of voters, despite the fact that he feared progress in Detroit Public Schools would be “virtually impossible” without a role like his.

Emergency management in Highland Park and Muskegon Heights believes that the changes in place for public education in each city, which summarily ejected the teacher unions, would remain intact (Highland Park turned control of its schools this summer over to The Leona Group; Muskegon Heights, to Mosaica Education, Inc.) but that may be wishful thinking. Already, public-employee unions are promising litigation, and it’s hard to see how a judge would disregard the will of the electorate.

This isn’t just a setback for these three districts in Michigan. The Wolverine State had gotten to a point where it could repel the adult interests in public education and side with the interests of its kids in Michigan’s most troubled school systems (several other municipalities benefited from the emergency-manager law as well). At least one political scientist told the New York Times that voters overturned the law because many thought “it seemed undemocratic to put a person in place with all those powers.” But it seems even less democratic to return power to dysfunctional school districts that already allowed powerful unions to gain undue influence once before.

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