The Michigan Education Association and Michigan Republican Party are on speaking terms – sort of.
Last year, the two sides regularly exchanged plenty of words – words such as “protecting sexual predators,” “hijack,” “robber” and “lying.”
In recent years, the MEA has spent large sums to relieve GOP lawmakers of their offices. And the Republican Party has pursued – and enacted – legal changes to limit the MEA’s organizational reach. This open warfare, as some political observers describe it, ironically camouflages a surprising number of policy agreements when it comes to public schools in Michigan, such as utilizing online learning tools and experimenting with the school calendar.
But politically, Republicans and their allies are effectively portraying the MEA as the defender of a failing educational system that protects its members while resisting reform, said John Klemanski, a political science professor at Oakland University.
“They’ve lost a fair amount of political influence,” he said about the MEA. “They don’t have a lot of sympathetic ears in the Legislature.
“In the short and long term, there are a lot of hurdles for the MEA and its membership to overcome and they’re all trending against them,” Klemanski said. “I don’t see any of these things getting better for the MEA. They’re going to get worse.”
So, how did Michigan come to this pass, with two hugely influential groups proclaiming their desire to improve education, but, at the same time, accusing the other of the basest of motives?
The trend was years, even decades, in the making, culminating in a meltdown last year around three key issues:
*Right to Work. While Republicans publicly state that RTW, which they adopted during a “lame duck” legislative session last December, is all about a worker’s freedom to choose whether or not to financially support a union’s bargaining activities, the unspoken motive of the measure is to drain union financial resources that support the Democratic Party.
*Collective bargaining. The MEA spent millions to support a ballot issue in November that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, a move criticized even by groups normally supportive of the MEA’s work.
Voters soundly defeated the proposal, giving Republicans a huge opening to quickly pass RTW, something they had sought for years.
*Gov. Rick Snyder’s education agenda, which has hit the MEA by requiring public workers to pay more for health care, making it harder for the union to collect dues, dismantled teacher tenure and stressed more teacher accountability for student success.
In 2013, Snyder and Republican lawmakers have been pushing even more changes that rely heavily on lower costs, online classes and more state control over poor-performing schools. And with state government under the tight control of Republicans, the MEA and its Democratic allies have largely become spectators in what could be the most sweeping education revamp in Michigan’s modern history.
Discord sown with ‘parochaid’ dispute
Longtime observers, though, say the seeds of today’s split between Republicans and the MEA were planted 50 years ago, in the 1960s, when the MEA first began flexing its political muscles.
The union became part of a broader coalition that helped convince voters to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing the expenditure of public funds for parochial schools, known as “parochiaid.”
“This amendment provided one of the strongest legal barriers to public subsidies of private schools in the country,” wrote Western Michigan University professors Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson in a 2002 book.
While the parochiaid issue didn’t break cleanly along party lines, it marked the beginning of a deep dive by the MEA into issue advocacy – a move that came to rankle Republicans.
“The relationship deteriorated when they became a political organization, rather than one that represented their members,” said John Truscott, a public relations executive who served as Gov. John Engler’s spokesman for 12 years, from 1991 through the end of 2002.
Today, there is little empathy for the MEA from Republicans.
“I’m not going to get into name calling, but I think it’s fair for the public to understand some of the dynamics that are occurring,” said state Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“The MEA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Lansing,” he said. “I think public needs to know that there’s a real active group that understands the political process at the local and state level.”
“They hold an extreme viewpoint. They don’t like public education,” he said. “We are the only one with the power to fight back.”
Relationship goes from tense to worse
MEA officials say the Republican view of education policy today makes that of its long-time foe Engler look moderate by comparison.
Engler and the MEA, after all, did see eye-to-eye on some issues, such as boosting school funding and opposing a 2000 ballot initiative to grant vouchers for students to attend nonpublic schools.
“Even with a governor whose interests didn’t always align with ours, we were able to find common ground,” said Gretchen Dziadosz, the MEA’s current executive director.
But Engler, who positioned himself as “the education governor,” also led sweeping educational reforms; reforms the MEA either opposed or cautioned against.
For example, Engler ushered in the charter school era in Michigan over the objection of the MEA, which saw it as an affront to public education. (Michigan now has the largest concentration of for-profit charter school operators in the country; and the staffs of the approximately 300 charter schools statewide are largely un-unionized.)
Teacher strikes, which had plagued the state for decades, were outlawed under Engler. And the state prohibited collective bargaining on the start of the school year.
“Engler’s animosity toward the MEA was, and remains, one of the abiding principles of his political career,” three then-professors of education at Michigan State University and Penn State University wrote in a 1998 white paper on the educational strategies of Engler and then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
While Engler attacked the MEA as an impediment to progress, the professors said union leaders “failed to advance a politically viable alternative to the reform strategies favored by their adversaries.”
Engler’s genius, the professors wrote, was his ability to demonize union leaders, while voicing support for the classroom teacher.
“The Republicans always tried to separate the teachers from the union” in the public debate on education, Truscott explained.
Granholm comes in; MEA woes remain
But even after Democrat Jennifer Granholm won the governorship in 2002, the political skies hardly brightened for the MEA.
Granholm, for instance, signed off on cuts to per-pupil spending in response to the state’s economic malaise.
And her call for teachers to contribute an additional 3 percent to their pensions brought a harsh rebuke — and a lawsuit -- from the MEA, which said it was “another attack on public employee retirement.”
“Granholm had a testy relationship with organized labor across the board,” said Craig Ruff of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. “Teacher unions got little from her administration.”
GOP consolidates control in 2010
Snyder’s victory in 2010 capped a Republican year that left the GOP in solid control of all the levers of state power. This, political observers have told Bridge, has proliferated the policy conflicts and turned the rhetorical dial to 11.
MEA officials attribute the animus, in part, to term limits for legislators and the rise of the Tea Party, whose adherents proclaim fealty to the causes of smaller government and lower taxes.
“It’s really hard to overcome the hyperpartisanship and stereotypes on both sides to form a relationship with somebody when he’s only going to be around for a short time,” said MEA’s Pratt.
And even though the MEA enjoys a good relationship with some Republicans, Pratt said the MEA fears naming them publicly would lead to retribution by Tea Partiers against those lawmakers.
Still, the MEA’s best political buds are Democrats, which it has lavished with financial support. That strategy has been expensive – and unprofitable – in recent years.
The MEA backed Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero over Snyder in 2010 and has directed the vast majority of its political funds to Democratic candidates for the Legislature, many of whom failed to get elected.
Since 2003, its political action committee has given $1,371,196 to Democratic candidates for the state House and Senate, compared to just $181,180 to Republican candidates. In other words, for every $1 sent to Democratic legislative candidates, the MEA kicked in about 12 cents for Republicans.
In the same time period, the MEA gave $2,357,731 to the state Democratic Party, and just $1,000 to the state GOP, according to data compiled for Bridge by Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
The MEA was the second-largest contributor (at $2,685,275) last year to a group supporting Proposal 2, which would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the constitution and definitely sparked one of the least edifying political debates in recent memory.
It also spent $197,000 in a successful effort to recall Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc, in 2011. Scott, an outspoken critic of the MEA, was instrumental in pushing changes in the teacher tenure law through the Legislature.
Yet, a year later, a Republican (Joe Graves) won a special election to fill Scott’s seat (against a teacher, Steve Losey). And in last fall’s regular general election, Graves beat Losey for a second time.
“The MEA’s PAC spent more to recall Paul Scott than it had given to Republican candidates for the House and Senate from 2003 to 2012,” MCFN’s Robinson noted.
The ‘nerd’ vs. the union
But the MEA may have its strongest adversary yet in Snyder.
Under Snyder, the state, for the first time, is using money from the School Aid Fund to support universities and community colleges. This funding shift, the MEA says, hurts already struggling school districts.
Snyder also has tapped the Oxford Foundation, headed by former Engler adviser Richard McLellan*, to help rewrite the 1979 School Aid Act. Snyder wants students to be able to take their state funding and attend any public or charter school in the state.
Another controversial Snyder initiative is the Educational Achievement Authority, which operates 15 low-performing schools in Detroit.
Pending legislation would codify the EAA into state law and allow it to take over the lowest-performing 5 percent of public schools in Michigan, or as many as 50 schools by 2015. Snyder and other advocates say the move upholds the state’s mandate to educate children – a responsibility that has not been met for too many years by some local school districts.
For example, at Detroit Pershing High School, in the years leading up to its shift to the EAA, 90 percent or more of its students failed to meet ACT benchmark scores on reading, math and English. And the majority of fourth-graders at Phoenix Elementary did not reach proficiency in reading under the state MEAP exam year after year.
The MEA and others oppose the measure, saying the EAA’s performance is unproven. But the union’s primary critiques of the current legislation focus far more on work rules than academic results. Even with all these points of conflict, there appear to be points of consensus between the MEA and Snyder when it comes to policy.
In a position paper to the Oxford group last year, the MEA outlined its own ideas for reform, among them:
*"Blended" online learning, in which students "can choose to receive instruction from high quality online educators, along with face-to-face instruction from high quality classroom teachers." (Snyder has long pushed more use of and flexibility in online education.)
*"(A)ccess to free, high quality, year-round academic programs to at-risk students throughout the state.” (The Snyder-backed EAA actually has adopted a longer school day and school year.)That could cut MEA membership if students leave for mostly nonunion charter schools or if teachers are laid off from MEA-represented schools because of declining enrollment.
*Easier access to earning college credits while in high school, for those academic programs deemed properly rigorous for such designation.
MEA’s proposals, however, also are heavy on increased funding for K-12 education and even details a variety of tax policy changes (sales taxes on Internet purchases and on services) to finance them. Snyder and the Republican Legislature, by contrast, have been aiming for policies to reduce school costs, such as a recently floated idea to create “value schools” to educate students for just $5,000 each.
“It’s become more and more difficult” to work with Republicans on education issues, said MEA’s Dziadosz. “It’s very sad.”
The union, though, is hardly embracing the role of peacemaker. Even in its policy-laden Oxford proposal, the MEA could not resist a rhetorical flourish aimed at its political foes:
“The MEA will continue to oppose unconscionable tax cuts that give huge tax breaks to corporations at the expense of our children.”
Klemanski said the MEA could make some political gains in the 2014 election -- if voters see that educational reforms being championed by Republicans aren't working or if they become disenchanted with other GOP priorities, such as Right to Work.
"Education is a huge issue in state politics, but it's not the only one, " he said.
But demographics and the political leanings of voters are working against the MEA and Democratic candidates that support it. The populations of Democratic-friendly central cities and voting turnout in those cities have declined, he said. Republican support tends to be higher in voter-rich suburbs.
"There are a lot of things working against the MEA in the next couple of elections," Klemanski said.
Editor’s note: McLellan is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.