What Arts Educators Need To Know About Bargaining

By Chad Williams

If there is a single shared experience that an arts educator will have with their colleagues, who span multiple disciplines, settings, and grade levels, it would be the intimate awareness and seeking of funding for their respective programs.  Those of you reading this post certainly know, but many of your colleagues have no idea, how expensive arts programming is to run!  Though I am not an arts educator myself, I have bargained contracts and advocated for educators as it pertains to funding arts programming and the educators who provide it.  I have also been a school administrator in a large school district where I was a lead administrator for a specialized high school Fine Arts program.  In those roles, I have gained the perspectives of both how impactful Fine Arts programming is to a district, but also how challenging it can be to obtain funding requisite to the importance of the arts in our schools.  I’ll try to shed a bit of light on this matter in the hopes that you may more effectively advocate for arts programming support at your school.

What does bargaining the teaching contract have to do with arts programming?

First, I would wish to remind all public school educators in the state of Michigan that in 1947, the Public Employment Relations Act was passed which establishes the legal right and standing for the terms of your employment to be determined through mutual agreement between a public employer (your school district) and you (through your local union contract).  Most who know about a “right to bargain” know that it generally pertains to wages and benefits, but the other feature which gets less attention is the right to bargain “working conditions,” that would be any of the conditions related to your ability to do your job.  Working conditions mean everything from the temperature in your room, to numbers of students, to resources and materials.  We often assume that a school district simply provides resources, but we don’t assume that we have any ability to determine the amount of resources or the equitable distribution of those resources.  We do know that $100 for classroom supplies may go a lot further for a math teacher than a visual arts teacher, but equal is not always equitable.  This inequitable working condition can be addressed in the bargaining process.

My arts colleagues and I are few and isolated among the much larger majority of educators in my district, why would anyone care enough to make my program a bargaining issue?

Don’t assume that your colleagues know what you do, and don’t assume that your program doesn’t have a large impact on your district as a whole; it may in fact be that your program adds value that funds all of your colleagues.  The reason for this is based on the way schools are funded, by student enrollment.  Many parents choose schools based on the specialized programming from that school, that’s you!  It only takes a few students or families to enroll their children in your district because of your programming to have significant financial implications when it comes to bargaining.  The insight needed though is being able to identify the impact of your program and be able to tell that story in concrete terms, not just to administration, but to your teaching colleagues who are on the bargaining teams that negotiate with administration.  If it were understood that your program brought a certain number of students to the district, and the additional state aid funding that resulted from their enrollment equated to a percentage increase to aggregate teacher salaries, this understanding would certainly reorient the priority of the bargaining team and administration when it comes to supporting your program.  You may be surprised at the actual impact you make to the bottom line of your district.

I know I make an impact for my district, but I’m concerned about redirecting resources away from my colleagues, who are also under-resourced.

Would you say a tree that grows is a detriment to the health of the forest? No. Neither is the growth or support of your program a detriment to your colleagues – for several reasons. First, when a district allocates resources, there are always trade-off’s, but is the district currently prioritizing narrow or non-instructional expenditures?  It may be that there are already resources that could be better allocated to support your program without any impact to other instructional programs. Secondly, well supported arts educators possess the unique capability to impact and support all other subject areas.  When a core curricular teacher is able to enhance their class through collaboration with an arts educator, that is the ideal efficient distribution of resources and cross-curricular collegiality that we know results in high impact learning for kids.  Lastly, don’t discount the notion that each new student you bring to the district translates into thousands of dollars that help everyone.

If you would like to learn more about how bargaining works and how you can add more advocacy tools to aid your funding and support goals, please look for future webinars and trainings on this issue through your MEA and MAEIA representatives.


Chad Williams is a MAEIA partner and UniServ Consultant with the Michigan Education Association, where he focuses on educator professional learning.  Prior to his work with the MEA, Chad was a high school administrator and English teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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