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Mich. Bill Penalizes Teachers for Job Actions

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In a pointed attack on the Michigan Education Association, the Michigan legislature last week cleared a bill that would set fines and penalties for local teachers who strike over contract disputes and limit the teachers' union's collective-bargaining clout.

The bill was launched in the legislature almost immediately after state voters last month approved a new school-finance system. Fresh off a victory on the finance issue and newly enjoying complete control of the legislature, Republican leaders were primed to push changes sought by administrators' groups as a way of controlling costs and limiting teacher strikes.

The plan won Senate approval on a 19-to-16 vote after clearing the House 54 to 47. Gov. John Engler said he will sign the measure.

Under the bill, the teachers' union would be penalized $5,000 for each day of a strike, while individual teachers would be fined their daily pay. Lockouts by school boards would result in a $5,000 daily fine against the district and a $250 daily fine against individual board members. Fines would go into the state school-aid fund, and reimbursement of fines would be barred.

While Michigan has had a law prohibiting school strikes, administrators complained that it was difficult to get judges in the traditionally pro-labor state to issue injunctions or levy fines.

"The point of this is to bust the M.E.A. by fixing things that aren't really broken and never have been,'' said Steven B. Cook, the union's secretary-treasurer. "The situation is not out of kilter, but, for the past two years, the Governor has promoted the notion that it is.''

Shift in Partisan Control

The bill was passed after a slim Democratic majority in the House was at least temporarily eroded by resignations. Republicans have used the opportunity to push a host of other bills as well.

The union fared relatively well in last year's school-reform debate, but set itself apart from other school groups by opposing a proposal to finance a shift to state funding of education through an increase in the sales tax. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

But aside from their role in that election, M.E.A. officials said they knew they would be a prime target when Republicans gained the upper hand in the state capital.

"We've always been the Governor's whipping boy, but now we are being accused of everything but the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby,'' Mr. Cook added.

Beyond the new strike rules, the bill would set mediation procedures when an impasse between teachers and administrators is declared.

Some of the bill's most important provisions are included in its new definition of the issues that come under collective bargaining.

The most controversial item would strip union negotiators of their ability to specify the health-insurance carrier for teachers. A common feature of current teachers' contracts in the state is a requirement that insurance be provided by the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a not-for-profit subsidiary of the teachers' union.

Analysts have argued that the system has forced schools to pay higher premiums than most employers. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

Cost Savings Predicted

In addition to the insurance provisions, school boards would be free to set the starting time for the school day and school year, the makeup of site-based-decisionmaking councils, and the use of volunteers. The structure of open-enrollment policies, pilot programs, and technology uses also would be off limits in contract talks.

A spokesman for Mr. Engler, a Republican running for re-election this fall, emphasized that the Governor did not introduce or push the bill but will gladly sign it when it reaches his office, probably in the next few days.

Leaders of the Michigan Association of School Boards, who suggested many of the bill's provisions, and the Michigan Association of School Administrators applauded the bill as a way of putting teeth into current law. They predicted that some of the provisions will allow administrators to cut costs and stretch tight budgets.

While only two strikes were recorded over the past school year in Michigan, lobbyists for the administrators' groups said the new penalties were necessary to redefine the balance of power.

"Those were still illegal strikes that delayed prime-time learning for 10,000 students this year,'' said Linda Beers, a lobbyist for the M.A.S.B. "This is not a stake in the heart of collective bargaining but just begins to level the playing field.''

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