Given all the academic and financial problems facing public schools in Michigan, the State Board of Education’s intense focus on charter schools seems odd.
A recent instance involves a board member interjecting herself into first-time union contract negotiations at a Detroit charter school.
Six of the eight current board members are Democrats, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise when the board follows the bidding of teachers unions. Labor has pushed hard against charter schools since their inception in the 1990s, because these public schools are mostly non-union, allowing them additional operational flexibility.
Michigan law allows charter schools to unionize, yet only a handful have done so, a testament to how charters treat their teachers. The American Federation of Teachers, however, is making an aggressive push to organize educators, primarily around Detroit.
Last year, the AFT successfully unionized Cesar Chavez Academy in Detroit. The academy’s Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff is still in negotiations with the charter board and the Leona Group, the management company that oversees day-to-day school operations. They do not yet have a contract.
State Board member Michelle Fecteau, D-Detroit, is the executive director of the Wayne State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors — an AFT affiliate. Fecteau says she got involved with Cesar Chavez “after learning parents, students, and teachers were upset about the manner in which school personnel were abruptly laid-off last October by the Leona Group.”
In a December letter, Fecteau urged both the charter board and the Leona Group to work with the union to resolve all issues, especially those related to labor complaints. She ended the letter by asking for a response so that the Board of Education could help make Cesar Chavez the “best possible school community.”
What raised concern is that she used official state board letterhead. “It’s totally different from anything we’ve seen so far,” says Buddy Moorehouse, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
This certainly gives the appearance of full board agreement, but that’s not the case, as other board members have made clear.
While Fecteau says she simply hopes to encourage a constructive resolution, her support for unionization of charter teachers is evident. “Unionization not only provides a measure of fairness, but also allows for more accountability where teachers can more securely advocate for students and against improprieties,” she says.
Fecteau should be much more worried that Detroit Public Schools was once again ranked the worst urban school district in the country in national testing.
The Michigan Constitution gives the State Board general supervision of schools, which includes planning and advising the Legislature. Getting involved in contract negotiations isn’t part of that job description.