Commentary

Seeking Alternatives to Collective Bargaining

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During the first half of this century, a policy that collective bargaining had no place in the public sector was nearly universal among local governments in the United States. In the years following World War II, however, public employees have pressured for meaningful participation in determining the conditions of their employment. Teachers and, to a lesser extent, school administrators have participated in this trend.

Today most states have laws that provide for some type of collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers. Indeed, teachers and their professional organizations have been in the forefront of this activity. As a result, collective bargaining is an ongoing process for determining many aspects of school operations related to compensation and working conditions for teachers.

Yet, as we evaluate this experience and consider its potential impact on future public-school operations, we must answer many questions about the effectiveness of collective bargaining. To address these questions, the board of directors of the National School Boards Association, at my request, has approved the creation of an nsba Commission on New Communication in Public School Educational Operations.

Collective bargaining is essentially a state matter. Although the nsba makes recommendations on issues related to collective bargaining for consideration by state school-boards associations and local school boards, it puts forth no value judgments or critiques on the merits of the process or the resulting outcomes. We believe that this process for conducting employer-employee relations is a policy issue each state must manage independently, in a manner consistent with its own customs and traditions.

This belief should not, however, prevent us from raising and examining fundamental questions about whether school leaders can develop and use methods other than collective bargaining in a beneficial way to decide issues of instructional quality. The resolution of future issues of quality in public education demands that we address such matters.

Warren G. Bennis has written in his book The Temporary Society that the effort to predict social trends "is as absurd as it is necessary.'' Charged with the responsibility under state laws for the governance of the nation's 15,400 public elementary- and secondary-school districts, local school boards and their 97,000 members across the United States have no choice: They must plan for the future. If they could, they would foresee the future and master it. Since this is not possible, they must try to predict future events, needs, and trends, and then plan for them.

Within this context, the collective-bargaining process, with its inherent adversarial quality, may not be the most effective means of fostering collegial, productive communication between and among teachers, school administrators, and school boards regarding educational and operational issues. Teachers and school administrators, we believe, hold the key to achieving the goals of both instructional excellence and equity in the nation's public schools. Indispensable to the attainment of these twin goals is open communication, which characterizes the cooperative and harmonious spirit that pervades every successful professional relationship.

Exactly what role collective bargaining plays in creating this kind of communication remains uncertain. Most states have established formal procedures to channel much of the communication between teachers, school administrators, and school boards. These procedures have been borrowed whole cloth from private-sector employer-employee relations, which involve primarily skilled and unskilled labor, as opposed to certified' professionals.

We have no quarrel with any state in its adoption--or its rejection--of private-sector collective-bargaining processes in order to negotiate wages, hours, and conditions of employment in the public schools. As already noted, it is a state's right to determine whether it wants collective bargaining in public education.

Neither do we seek, through our commission's work, the abolition of collective bargaining. Instead, we plan to explore new ways of communicating among school boards, administrators, and teachers, and to evaluate and make recommendations on such new methods.

Recent national studies of the quality of elementary and secondary education have recommended a more meaningful role for the teacher in raising educational standards, devising curricula, and generally influencing school practices. Most of the studies have extolled the role of a strong principal in the development of "effective schools," and many have called for new relationships between teachers and administrators.

While the studies trumpet the necessity for institutionalizing this new relationship, however, none of them address the practical problems of implementing such recommendations. Ignoring collective bargaining as a factor in educational improvement, the studies have failed to suggest ways in which teachers and administrators, working under the policy guidance of school boards, can regularly and more effectively communicate on operational issues.

In its quest for answers to questions posed by these conditions and issues, the nsba commission is charged with the following objectives:

To recommend ways to improve the communication process on public-school operational and educational issues among school boards, administrators, and teachers.

To determine what kinds of processes can be put into place in a school district--either as a supplement to collective bargaining where it exists or as a separate process where it does not exist--to stimulate cooperation among these professional groups as they address the issues.

To demonstrate how these recommended processes will ensure that the contributions of the professionals in the districts that institute these methods will yield the most fruitful results possible.

To show how strict accountability for results can be assured once an improved communication process is in place.

To describe how these processes can result in placing before the local school boards recommendations, reached with a reasonable professional consensus, that will enable the school board to enact the wisest educational policy under all the unique circumstances in each school district.

While we cannot predict what answers will be forthcoming from this charge and the commission's deliberations, we hope and expect that the recommendations generated will help local boards across the nation determine the kinds of processes that can best move their districts closer to educational excellence and equity.

The school board has the statutory and social responsibility to be in the vanguard toward the realization of that goal at the local community level. Neither collective bargaining nor any of its nuances should be permitted to impede the educational preparation of our children for the 21st century.

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Issue 7, Pages 7, 28

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