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School Reform News

Teacher Unions Crush Philanthropy and Volunteerism

Michigan rejects $200 million

Lisa Snell
December 1, 2003

Public school administrators often urge businesses and philanthropists to support the public school system.

But while school officials are willing to accept large gifts that support the current school system, a recent incident in Michigan shows they are much less interested in accepting funds that support the children in the system rather than the adults.

Rejecting $200 Million

In October, the Mayor of Detroit and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm turned away a $200 million gift offered to create 15 small charter high schools in Detroit. Philanthropist Robert Thompson wanted to build the small high schools; he would have charged just $1 a year in rent if the school operators maintained a 90 percent graduation rate.

The governor decided to veto the charter school bill that included Thompson's proposal after Detroit teachers shut down the city's schools with a one-day walkout on September 25. More than 3,000 teachers held a demonstration at the state capitol.

Despite the hundreds of students attending low-performing high schools in Detroit, the bottom line for the city's teacher union was that more charter schools would mean less money for the district.

"Every time a kid leaves the Detroit system that's $7,000 walking out the door," Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick told the Detroit News.

After withdrawing his gift Thompson expressed his disappointment in a public statement.

"I am disappointed and saddened by the anger and hostility that has greeted our proposal. Because of these contentious conditions, we are not going to move forward with our planned charter high schools," said Thompson. "Our proposal to build a number of new very small charter high schools in Detroit was intended to increase options for Detroit parents and children. The proposal was meant to be for kids and not against anyone or any institution."

Jack McHugh, a legislative analyst with the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, denounced the decision as a blow for Detroit children stuck in failing schools.

"By their actions, the defenders of this failed school system could not have made their scale of priorities more clear," he said. "Very low on that scale are the future prospects and current well being of the children forced to attend this school district, which is a tragic monument to failure and hopelessness."

Union Rebukes Parent Volunteers

On a smaller scale but with a similar attitude, San Diego union members recently rebuked parent volunteers who were working to clean up a local elementary school.

At Marvin Elementary School in San Diego, California parents volunteered to help clean up the school campus after it had been neglected due to school district employee layoffs. Landscaping had become overgrown at many San Diego campuses, and parents offered to pull weeds and remove trash from the campus.

But the San Diego school unions cried foul, claiming such acts of volunteerism violate union labor laws. The union representing landscapers said schools are prohibited from giving district work to anyone but employees.

"People intend to have a community cleanup, but it is very dangerous for schools to rely on this work," union president Eric Olson explained in the San Diego Tribune. "What happens when the district gets in better financial shape—why rehire the landscape crews when the work is being done free? If people really want to help, they should be writing their elected officials about the budget."

The district even circulated a memo telling administrators what to do in the event this "problem" of volunteers arose. Now the principal of one school says she was wrong to ask for volunteers.

Marvin Elementary Principal E. Jay Derwae is one of the few sticking up for the volunteers.

"Our nondistrict school foundation decided it wanted to spruce up the school because of budget cuts and because the weeds were five feet tall," said Derwae. "The union told us we were to cease and desist. But I'm not going to tell my parents and neighbors who live in houses with impeccable yards they can't clean up the school."

Volunteer Work Prohibited at Schools

Union collective bargaining laws across the nation prohibit volunteers from doing work employees usually perform. San Diego is not the only school district to claim volunteers violated union rules.

Perhaps the most notorious example happened in 2002, when two Brooklyn school janitors demanded to be paid time-and-a-half—$37 an hour—for two weekends when community members worked on school landscaping as a memorial in honor of a second-grade boy who had recently died.

The janitors did not even participate in the work. The grieving community members had violated their labor contract.

The unions argue some types of volunteerism violate the bargaining agreement that prohibits schools from giving district work to anyone but employees. But by this logic, the very spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism violates union rules.

Volunteers and philanthropists serve a critical school function, allowing parents and the community to be engaged in their schools while allowing principals and school superintendents to conserve resources and acquire new resources that can be focused on the classroom and improving student performance.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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