Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Teacher Contracts, Student Needs

December 06, 2005 5 min read
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To the Editor:

The well-intentioned effort by Rhode Island’s Education Partnership, detailed in Valerie Forti’s Nov. 16, 2005, Commentary (“Directing Funding Away From Student Needs,” Commentary, Nov. 16, 2005.), is not well-informed. It ignores the fundamental and legitimate purpose of unions: to protect the employment interests of their members. The group’s report, in fact, suggests the incompetence of school management, rather than of any union. It is the primary function of management to represent the basic interests of the enterprise: teaching and learning.

Unions, which are employee organizations, have a fourfold responsibility. It begins with the protection of members (working conditions). Next, unions must address the recognition of their members’ services (wages and benefits). Many unions never sufficiently satisfy these two basic responsibilities. Only if they do—and these I would label “mature unions”—can they legitimately move on, but only if laws and management practice allow.

Many mature unions are able to move to level three: addressing their members’ skills and effectiveness in performing primary work responsibilities (professional development). The old guilds dealt with this function effectively, but now it has been taken over by management, and not always for the better. In public education, level three also includes attending to the degree of public respect for the art and science of teaching—for the status of teaching as a profession. This is where the concerns of the Education Partnership, of management, and those of teachers’ unions in the state should begin to merge.

The fourth tier of union responsibility is the ultimate service any union can provide to members. It requires that a union address the level of joy and satisfaction members experience in their daily work. Here, management and unions should be on the same page. Students will be best served when teachers feel they are doing their best work each day.

With the teaching profession considerably weakened today, teachers feel less and less joy and satisfaction in their daily work. This is mainly because many policymakers, driven by ideology rather than wisdom, ignore professional knowledge and competence.

One could say there is a disconnect here between the “job” and the “role” of teachers’ unions. Tiers one and two represent the “job” of teachers’ unions. Tiers three and four represent the “role” of teachers’ unions. The Education Partnership reveals little understanding of all this.

Collective bargaining laws in many states limit bargaining to tier-one and -two union responsibilities—the “job.” These laws ignore the potential “role” of unions. Such laws, or at least their interpretation, make the quality of teaching and learning nonbargainable issues.

I wonder what would happen if some state actually made teaching and learning a mandatory subject of bargaining, rather than one virtually off-limits or considered a management right. If the teaching and learning function is a “management right,” then management, not teachers or their unions, is accountable for the quality of teaching and learning.

Robert Barkley

Worthington, Ohio

The writer is a former executive director of the Ohio Education Association, in Columbus, Ohio.

To the Editor:

So now we find out that teacher-negotiated teacher contracts are really “adult entitlements.” The latest diatribe proclaiming that teachers and their unions are at the center of all that’s wrong with public schools and their suffering budgets comes from Valerie Forti of the Education Partnership, the Rhode Island affiliate of the Business Roundtable [and the Public Education Network]. Ms. Forti’s unrelenting attack on teachers’ unions is insulting, factually inaccurate, and unhelpful to the legitimate problem of inadequately funded public education.

Her erroneous theme is that negotiated teacher contracts are too expensive and serve as roadblocks to quality education. Let’s start with the word “negotiated.” Every union contract is an agreement made between the school district and the union. In Rhode Island, almost all school committees are represented by highly paid labor-relations attorneys at the bargaining table. Ms. Forti incredulously claims that school board members and superintendents are unaware of contract details. Believe me, they know exactly what they get, what they were able to delete from the union’s wish list, and how much the entire contract will cost. That’s why they spend thousands of dollars on attorneys.

If Ms. Forti chose to do a serious analysis of teacher bargaining, she would see that it is the teachers’ unions, not management, that attempt to include nontraditional items in contracts for the sole purpose of improving student achievement. These proposals include reducing class size, using successful professional-development programs, enforcing discipline and zero-tolerance policies, providing teachers with adequate training programs on new curricula and incentives to become board-certified, and offering good mentoring and induction programs for new teachers.

It is a worn-out cliché and factually inaccurate to insinuate that teacher salaries take money away from student needs. The federal No Child Left Behind Act actually requires all teachers to be highly qualified, for the benefit of students. To fill the thousands of teaching vacancies throughout the country with highly qualified candidates, it will take, among other things, better salaries. With all the stress and pressure, and the long hours teachers put in during the school day, in the evening grading homework and tests, attending professional-development seminars, and in lesson planning, a beginning average salary of $32,000 is nothing to brag about. I doubt if the corporate members of the Business Roundtable would find teacher salaries acceptable for themselves.

The problem of adequate funding for public education isn’t an issue of teacher contracts. It is a federal and state problem. The Bush administration told Congress it would fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act if Congress passed the legislation. A bipartisan Congress voted for the law, but the White House broke its promise and underfunded it. And congressional approval of tax cuts exacerbates an already grim budget picture.

If Ms. Forti and her Business Roundtable colleagues were genuinely interested in adequate funding for public education, instead of in lobbing relentless attacks on unions, they could tell Congress that tax cuts for the wealthy end up denying students adequate funding. Let’s stop the blame-the-union game and work on serious ways to improve student achievement and provide better funding for our public schools.

Marcia Reback

Providence, R.I.

The writer is the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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