A New Deal

March 01, 1999 3 min read

Milwaukee appears set to scale back something long seen as sacrosanct by teachers: the seniority rights of classroom veterans. Under a tentative contract agreement forged by negotiators for the district and the local teachers’ union, educators with the most experience in the district would no longer automatically get first dibs on open teaching posts in the city’s public schools.

Leaders of the city’s 105,000-student district praised the proposal, which they said would allow schools to hire the best available candidates. As it is now, schools in Milwaukee must first offer open posts to a qualified teacher with the most years in the city’s system.

Though most unions insist on seniority rules in their contracts, the negotiated change also won the endorsement of the leadership of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association. If the school board and the union’s members ratify the contract, staff at each of the district’s 11 reform-oriented schools--the so-called Innovative Schools--would be allowed to decide whether to eliminate the seniority policy. Under the contract, that option would eventually be extended to all the system’s schools.

Paulette Copeland, president of the MTEA, said she expects most schools to exercise that right. The change would actually empower teachers, she explained, because they sit on the school teams that would interview and select candidates. “This is something our members have wanted to do for quite some time,” she said.

Seniority transfer rules were among the first provisions negotiated into contracts when teachers began unionizing in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Those provisions rewarded veteran teachers but also stripped administrators of the power to control who could transfer in or out of a school. In recent years, reformers have criticized such contracts. A principal or faculty, they argue, can’t create a cohesive school culture or implement reforms if hires are dictated by seniority.

Observers in Milwaukee believe the new contract provision could speed improvements in the city’s public schools. Former Milwaukee schools superintendent Howard Fuller said the old seniority policy was a significant obstacle to reform during his tenure. “Everyone who’s interested in education reform has talked about the impact of seniority on trying to make changes in the schools,” said Fuller, now the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. “So if they have made significant changes on how seniority is applied to assigning teachers or to transferring teachers, and to the ability of the district to address failing schools, then I would be very supportive of this contract.”

Harmony over such a controversial contract issue would be unusual in any school system, but it’s particularly notable in Milwaukee, where the district and its teachers’ union have a rancorous history. The recently announced pact represents the first time in three decades that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement before the expiration of a current contract. “We do have a sense of cooperation, and that’s our biggest concern as we’re moving the district forward,” Copeland said. “I would say that four years ago, maybe a contract like this may not have been introduced.”

In addition to the seniority provision, the agreement includes a 2.25 percent pay increase for teachers in each of the next two years. Union and district negotiators also have agreed to eliminate the current policy requiring that no more than 30 percent of the teachers at any one school be members of a minority group. The practice is the vestige of an integration initiative instituted more than 20 years ago.

--Jeff Archer