Last week, Detroit’s teachers called a “sick-out”—a coordinated action wherein the unionized teachers call in sick simultaneously in what is best characterized as a strike—for at least the fifth time in the last few weeks. Strikes by public sector employees are illegal in Michigan (“A public employee shall not strike and a public school employer shall not institute a lockout,” the relevant state law reads), so the teachers’s actions have prompted the Detroit School District’s emergency manager to request that the state Court of Appeals explicitly declare them illegal. A ruling is expected later today.
On one level, the teachers are grousing about the horrid state of Detroit’s public schools. MLive:
They [the teachers’s complaints] include claims of low pay, sparse textbooks, large classes, poor benefits and facilities that pose a health risk or adverse learning environment. There have been claims of rodent infestations, black mold, lack of heat, warped gym floors and leaky roofs.
However, a deeper point of contention appears to be with how these problems should be addressed:
Governor Tim Snyder’s proposed plan calls for moving current Detroit schools to a newly created school district. The old Detroit Public Schools would continue to exist solely as a mechanism to pay of the old debt [. . .]
The teacher’s union has put out a plan of its own. It calls for a restoration of local power, the return of failing schools that were placed in Snyder’s state-chartered Education Achievement Authority and is almost entirely at odds with the governor’s plan, except for it too calls for the state to pay the District’s debt.
In short, the teachers want Lansing to pay Detroit’s debts, and yet let the same people who torched the city keep running things. They are right that conditions in Detroit schools are unacceptable, but at the same time, it is unreasonable to accept that people who don’t actually live in Detroit should just pay up without having some say in how the money is spent.
If public unions can’t accept that reality, and if they continue to respond to it the way Detroit teachers have done, with an illegal strike, then those unions should probably brace themselves for a rash of Scott Walker-like laws limiting the power of public unions.
Real relief for real reform is the only possible way to deal with the problems that have already hit cities like Flint and Detroit, to say nothing of municipalities like Puerto Rico. And more candidates for fiscal crisis are just over the horizon: The next recession could see a long line of cities and even states—yes, Illinois, that means you—standing in the bailout line.
Thinking through the nuts and bolts of just how these kinds of programs get implemented needs to be a major priority for think tanks, both liberal and conservative. A hard-pressed governor and legislature are not going to have a lot of time when trouble hits. The Flint water disaster shows how full of pitfalls the situation can be when fiscal failure forces a city to turn to outsiders.
Perhaps even consultancy groups like McKinsey can start to get in on the act: Assisting states wrestling with failed, blue model cities could be a major growth industry.