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Published in Print: March 6, 2002, as Calif. Bill Would Allow Unions More Say on Academics

Calif. Bill Would Allow Unions More Say on Academics

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California teachers and union leaders argue that pending state legislation on collective bargaining offers a common-sense approach to improving instruction, raising teacher morale, and increasing accountability. But to many administrators, school board members, and editorial writers statewide, the measure represents an attack on public education, school reform, and democracy itself.

The adversaries do, however, agree that Assembly Bill 2160 could be a defining issue in education in the bellwether state this year.

The bill, which was introduced in the legislature last month, would expand local bargaining beyond the traditional issues of wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions to give teachers a bigger say on academic issues. If passed, the measure would extend the scope of contract negotiations to "the development and implementation of any program designed to enhance pupil academic performance." That could include academic standards and curriculum, textbooks, assessments, and initiatives to increase parent involvement.

'Union Politics'

As the state expands its implementation of academic standards and accountability measures, proponents say, giving teachers more power over instructional decisions is a logical step.

Wayne Johnson

"Right now, we have a teaching force of 300,000 teachers, all college graduates. Many are as educated as the administrators and bureaucrats ... and have at least 10 years' experience with their local school district," said Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Association. The 300,000 members of the National Education Association affiliate, the state's largest teachers' union, include teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and librarians.

"To exclude this talent pool from having anything to say over what they do in the classroom makes no sense," Mr. Johnson said.

Policymakers and administrators, though, contend the proposal is nothing more than a power grab by union leaders, and does not represent the wishes of rank-and-file teachers.

Opponents argue that the bill would take decisions now made by district leaders, in collaboration with teachers and after public review, and move them behind closed doors to the negotiating table. It would extend the time and money spent on bargaining, they add, and derail most current, planned, or future school improvement initiatives.

"The impact that we foresee if this thing passes, either in its broadest form or a whittled-down version, is to bring to a screeching halt any efforts in school districts for change or reform," charged Dennis D. Meyers, the assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. "This takes teachers out of the picture and injects union politics into curriculum decisions."

California has adopted academic standards and textbooks closely aligned to those guidelines, and has undertaken as well an intense effort to improve reading and mathematics achievement through skills-based instruction. Such moves have left many educators across the state frustrated by the efforts of local school boards and administrators to mandate particular methods of instruction in their districts.

Some teachers say their professional judgment and expertise have been ignored in curricular decisionmaking. State officials counter by saying the poor performance of the state's 6.2 million students on standardized tests in math and reading forced them to wrest control of some instructional issues from teachers.

Old, Industrial Notions?

In response to state initiatives, some districts have adopted off-the-shelf instructional programs providing highly scripted lessons that leave little room, in the view of some teachers, for flexibility or creativity.

Leaders in some of the state's largest and neediest districts cite that approach for yielding significant improvements in student achievement.

In Los Angeles, for example, widespread use of Open Court, a scripted reading program published by the New York City- based McGraw-Hill Cos., and a decision to teach algebra to all 8th graders, have helped many schools improve, officials say.

Roy Romer

"I believe very much in teacher involvement," said Roy Romer, the superintendent of the 723,000-student district. "But much of the reform in L.A. would not have occurred if this law was in effect."

Union leaders on the opposite coast take umbrage at such sentiments.

In Maryland, the NEA-affiliated Montgomery County Education Association has collaborated closely with district officials to establish a peer-review system and improve curriculum and professional-development initiatives.

"We've been demonstrating the advantages to management of allowing the union to engage fully in quality issues," said Mark Simon, the president of the local union. "The old kind of industrial notion that management decides and the union grieves about the decisions is counterproductive in an educational setting."

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, proposed a bill earlier this year that would change the state's 34-year-old collective bargaining law and allow teachers to bargain over instructional issues.

Observers expect the California bill, which is sponsored by several prominent legislators, including Democrat Herb J. Wesson Jr., the speaker of the Assembly, to be put on a fast track for consideration in the current legislative session, which ends Aug. 31.

Opponents, meanwhile, have promised an aggressive challenge.

"This is a radical grab for power," said Karen C. Young, the president of the Sacramento school board. "There are some things we won't give away, and that has to do with curriculum."

Vol. 21, Issue 25, Pages 22,26

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