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Michigan Democrats want to give teachers more say in classroom assignments

Group of student sitting at their desks and one student raised her hands to ask doubt to teacher.
Michigan lawmakers approved several limits on teachers unions back in 2011 when Republicans were in control. More than 10 years later, unions are hoping to restore those rights. (Shutterstock)
  • The Michigan House is considering bills that would increase teachers unions’ ability to influence school operations 
  • Among other things, Democrats want to give teachers more of a voice in what classes teachers are placed in  
  • Critics say the bills would hamstring school administrators and result in class placement based on seniority rather than skills

Michigan Democrats are pushing a union-friendly set of education bills that could give teachers more say in the classes and grades they teach. The legislation, now in the House Labor Committee, would also allow teacher evaluations to be negotiated at the district level as part of collective bargaining.  

The bills are opposed by Michigan superintendents and others, who say they would hamstring the ability of school administrators to assign teachers to classes based on what’s best for students, rather than on a teacher’s years of seniority.

Currently, unions and districts are prohibited from collectively bargaining over policies on teacher placement and evaluations, and on decisions relating to staff reductions. 


House Bills 4354 and 4355 would reverse that and allow those subjects to be collectively bargained. 

Supporters of the bills say they will help ensure teachers have a voice in key school district decisions, which could improve teacher retention in a state that already struggles to hire enough teachers.

But opponents counter it is likely to have the opposite effect, discouraging younger teachers from staying in the profession if more senior colleagues are given contract-prescribed priority in classroom assignments. More importantly, they say, it will make it harder for superintendents to make classroom placement decisions that put students first. .  

House Bill 4354 sponsor Rep. Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, told Bridge Michigan that back in October 2019 while she was teaching social studies at a small high school in Detroit, she was told on a Friday that there would be changes to her schedule the following Monday, including teaching a new class. Her students’ schedules were changed too, she said. 

Weiss said she knows districts face “hard decisions” around enrollment and funding. 

“But at the end of the day, I had no voice in that process as a teacher, my students had no voice in that process,” Weiss said. “And other than going and talking at a school board meeting during public comment, there was really nothing that I could do. And there was nothing that the union could do for me in that situation.”  

When asked Tuesday about Weiss’ account, the Detroit Public Schools Community District said low enrollment and a vacancy of an English Language Arts teacher were the reasons for changing Weiss’ schedule. But the district also claimed the changes were communicated to Weiss weeks before they occurred.

[On Thursday, two days after this article was published, the district appeared to backtrack on that claim, sending Weiss an email saying it could not confirm nor deny how much notice Weiss had been given for the change in her teaching schedule. Weiss shared the email with Bridge.] 

The House Labor Committee is scheduled to discuss Weiss’ bill and others Thursday.

The Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA) opposes allowing teacher placement decisions to be subject to union negotiations.  

“It takes away the ability of superintendents to place teachers where they're best suited for, or where they're best (and) most qualified for,” Matt Schueller, MASA’s director of government relations, told Bridge Michigan. 

“If it's a seniority-based system, there's no guardrails or checks on where a teacher could teach. And especially in areas like special ed, we need the most qualified teacher in that classroom. So we argue it's on balance, not good for kids.” 

Republican-backed teacher tenure changes made in 2011 ended the practice of districts making staffing decisions based solely on seniority, and gave school administrators more leeway to consider teacher effectiveness.

Tara Kilbride, assistant director for research at Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, studies the state teacher workforce. 

She said the reforms did not have much impact on overall teacher turnover in the state but there were ramifications for hard-to-staff districts.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut Hartford and MSU analyzed Michigan public school employee data from 2005 to 2015. 

They found “strong evidence” that early-career teachers in hard-to-staff schools (measured by poverty rates, student performance data and drop out rates) were more likely to exit the public school system after the 2011 laws were put in place than teachers in wealthier and higher performing districts. 

Kilbride said it’s possible that Democratic efforts to expand teacher bargaining rights could provide more incentive for employees to stay in one district since they could gain more say in teacher placement with more seniority. And less teacher turnover could improve student academic performance, she said. 

But others argue expanding bargaining rights, including considerations of teacher evaluations, could harm students.

Steve Delie, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank that is frequently at odds with teachers unions, said the proposed changes would make “accountability more difficult, transparency more difficult and evaluating the effectiveness of student educations more difficult.” 

For instance, Delie said, what if a local bargaining unit negotiated a contract that allowed a limited number of classroom teacher observations during the school year. Administrators may be prevented under the contract from conducting additional observations of a teacher who had repeated complaints lodged against them. 

Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the current system for evaluating teachers is not trusted by teachers, which is a problem. 

“We know that getting buy-in into an evaluation process, making it more developmental and less punitive is going to have a positive impact on student learning,” he said. “We know that the only way to make an evaluation system work is to have buy-in from most people. Right now, there’s no buy-in. (Teachers) are being told, ‘Here’s what it is.’”

The bills being considered this week are separate from other possible legislation, which Bridge recently wrote about, intended to weaken the state’s teacher evaluation system by, for instance, removing student performance on standardized tests from playing a factor in a teacher’s rating. 

Nearly all states (44 plus Washington, D.C.) broadly allow teachers to collectively bargain, according to an analysis by Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group that advocates for high-quality teaching standards. 

But just four of those states make teacher evaluations part of the bargaining process, while nine others allow that option and Michigan is among six states and D.C. in which bargaining over evaluations is prohibited. 

Proponents of Michigan’s current evaluation system say having the evaluation process determined at the state, rather than local, level brings consistency to evaluations. Subjecting evaluations to local bargaining, they say, will make it harder for districts to remove ineffective teachers. 

When school districts used teacher seniority to make placement decisions, said  Schueller of the superintendents association, younger teachers experienced uncertainty as they waited for more senior teachers to make decisions. Those decisions sometimes resulted in younger teachers being laid off because their teaching certifications didn’t align with the classes that remained open. 

That’s not good for teacher recruitment or retention, Schueller argued.

Chris Glass, assistant superintendent of legislative affairs at Education Advocates of West Michigan, which represents Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon intermediate school districts, said he wants to ensure that any changes to state education law won’t undercut efforts to increase the state’s teacher workforce. The state is investing heavily in programs aimed to increase the number of teachers in the state. 

There is state funding for grow-your-own programs where school districts pay paraprofessionals and others to go to train to become teachers. Additionally, the state is paying for scholarships for college students who are learning to become teachers along with stipends for student teachers who previously were unpaid as worked alongside professional teachers in real classrooms. 

Glass said bargaining over teacher placement could lead to instability and churn for young teachers, making it less likely for them to want to stay in the profession.

Some schools have created professional learning curriculum communities within their faculties, allowing teachers to work closely together to hone their skills, plan lessons and develop curriculum together, he said. Changes to teacher placement policy that rely more on staff seniority could disrupt that learning environment.

But David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, argued that teacher placement was subject to bargaining before the Republican changes of 2011 and it “all worked out fine.” 

Teachers “have dedicated their lives (to teaching) at inadequate pay because of their concern about the education of their students,” Hecker said. “So whatever teachers bargain, it's going to be what they believe is in the best interest to advance education in that school district. And nobody knows better than teachers… what needs to happen to advance education in a school district.”

Schueller, of the superintendents association, told Bridge that despite the groups opposition to this week’s bills, the organization is open to expanding the range of issues that can be collectively bargained.

“We recognize that the pendulum swung too far in 2011,” he said. “And we are not trying to just keep all of this power out of teachers’ hands.”

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