School Reforms Bump Up Against Unions’ Most Cherished Protections

By Ann Bradley — December 09, 1992 17 min read
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As urban districts move to grant individual schools greater autonomy, teachers’ unions are confronting challenges to some of collective bargaining’s most cherished protections and procedures.

In particular, the push to decentralize big-city school systems often calls into question the centralized personnel policies that were created when teachers were regarded as interchangeable laborers in a factory-like system.

In recent months, attempts to give schools greater control over their budgets, staffs, and programs in such cities as Boston and Detroit have run headlong into the desires of unions to protect the tenure and seniority policies, centralized hiring, and common work rules that have traditionally been key features of teaching contracts.

And at the same time that reformers are pushing for greater authority at the school site, the American Federation of Teachers, which once led the charge for schools to govern themselves, is downplaying school-based management as its primary reform strategy.

Without clear curriculum goals, better assessments, and incentives for students and teachers, such initiatives often flounder, said Albert Shanker, the president of the A.F.T.

“We’re convinced that school-based management, in and of itself, does not lead anywhere,’' he said in an interview last month.

Union leaders acknowledge that school autonomy calls traditional labor practices into question. Some union presidents, such as John Elliott, who heads the Detroit Federation of Teachers, insist that teachers should not and do not want to take on the responsibility of managing schools.

Others, such as Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, contend that unions could give up some of their traditional roles and become “service centers’’ for their members.

“It would mean a different kind of union,’' Mr. Urbanski said, “not lesser, just different.’'

‘A Serious Barrier’

Researchers have found that the most successful schools are those in which teachers, principals, and students feel a sense of ownership, have created a distinctive culture, and have the freedom to go about achieving their goals.

Many reformers are now suggesting that principals and teachers be given greater control over who works in their buildings as a way to build such school cultures.

But in many big-city districts where such devolution of authority may seem most critical, teachers are hired and assigned to jobs in a centralized way that allows individual schools little leeway in choosing and managing their own teachers. These procedures, many experts now believe, eventually could undermine efforts across the nation to give schools more autonomy.

“If teachers continue to be assigned on the basis of seniority or other general criteria,’' says a RAND Corporation report on decentralization, “staff assignment could become a serious barrier to the continuation of healthy site-managed schools.’'

Shifting Power to Schools

Decentralization efforts are under way in a number of urban school districts. Unlike the movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that resulted in the creation of community school boards in New York City and subdistrict offices in Detroit, the focus of the current activity is on devolving power and authority to schools themselves.

The best example is Chicago, where local school councils that include administrators and teachers along with parents and community members now hire and fire school principals and make critical decisions about a school’s budget and programs.

School reformers in other cities, while advocating a variety of approaches, also believe that the best strategy for addressing the problems that plague their schools lies with the people who work in them.

In Los Angeles, a diverse civic coalition has drafted a plan for moving decisionmaking and budget authority to the schools. In Detroit, the school board has been locked in a struggle with the teachers’ union over a proposal to “empower’’ schools to run their own affairs. In Philadelphia, the comprehensive high schools are being broken down into smaller units that are viewed as a step toward eventually decentralizing the district.

And in Boston, the school committee has proposed creating deregulated “demonstration schools’’ that would be free to hire and manage their own staffs. The committee and the Boston Teachers Union are now negotiating a new contract.

Whether these efforts will be successful is unclear. Three members of the Detroit Board of Education who were most closely associated with the empowerment effort there lost their bids for re-election last month, in large part because they had alienated the district’s labor unions.

‘Bargain and Get Out’

Because the historical trend has been toward more, not less, centralization, experts believe that these efforts face formidable obstacles. The issue of what to decentralize and what to maintain as the province of the central office is not a simple one, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of administration, planning, and social policy at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

“People are totally unrealistic about how complicated these organizations are, how difficult it is to bring about change, and how long it takes,’' she said.

But the unmistakable trend toward breaking down the centralized administration of big districts has important implications for teachers’ unions.

As districts move decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, grading and attendance policies, and the like down to schools, observed Charles T. Kerchner, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School in California and the editor of a new book on urban school reform, “you tear big hunks out of the notion of the existing bureaucracy.’'

“We are talking about departures from industrial-style organizations that are strongly hierarchical, relatively formalized, and relatively differentiated between levels,’' he said, “where teachers are real different than managers.’'

“Once you depart from that mode of operation,’' Mr. Kerchner added, “the existing mode of organizing teachers doesn’t work very well.’'

Some union leaders have thought about new ways of serving their members that break with existing practices.

“My whole thrust has been that the bargaining agent has to play a minimal role: Bargain and get the hell out of the way,’' said Patrick O’Rourke, the president of the Hammond (Ind.) Federation of Teachers. “Practitioner power, not bargaining-agent power.’'

“That is controversial within A.F.T.,’' he added. “There has always been a minority who want to really increase the role of practitioners at the expense of traditional roles for the unions.’'

The “logical consequence’’ of school-based management, write the RAND researchers in their decentralization study, would be a “districtwide teacher labor market in which teachers and schools choose one another on the basis of affinity to school mission and culture.’'

‘Not a Simple Issue’

How to create such a system--while still protecting teachers’ rights and guarding against inequity--is a subject of intense debate.

Union leaders insist that, for a number of reasons, it cannot and should not be done. For one thing, school-site hiring would create imbalances among experienced and inexperienced teachers, Mr. Shanker, the A.F.T. president, argues.

“In New York City,’' he said, “if you didn’t have a central-assignment and central-transfer plan, then teachers would be distributed according to the racial composition of the school and the socioeconomic status.’'

“It’s also true right now that when New York City teachers are centrally hired and sent to the school that probably about 30 percent of the teachers quit because they do not want to work at the school that they are sent to,’' he added. “So this is not a simple issue.’'

In addition to concerns about equity, union leaders point out that districts have to guard against undue political pressures in teacher hiring. And some, most notably Boston, are under centrally administered school-desegregation orders that regulate the racial composition of their teaching forces.

“In the 1950’s,’' recalled Jack Steinberg, the director of education issues for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, “we had ward schools, where a teacher had to go to a ward leader, pay the ward leader, and work for that person on election day [to get a job]. That’s not so far back in our history.’'

The notion of schools choosing teachers on the basis of their adherence to a certain philosophy or approach to education also runs counter to the egalitarian norms that influence teachers’ relationships with one another.

In Philadelphia, some of the teachers who have created “charter’’ schools in the comprehensive high schools have expressed interest in hiring the other teachers who will work with them.

The teachers’ union opposes the idea, arguing that it would create divisions in the ranks. Some teachers, Mr. Steinberg argued, tend to become “dictatorial’’ in their views.

“The thought of only having people in your school who agree with our philosophy is one that we reject,’' he said, “because the whole purpose of restructuring is to give an opportunity to all ideas to come out and be discussed.’'

Unions as Bureaucracies

In addition to personnel policies, the centralized work rules contained in teaching contracts have come under fire in some cities. Critics argue that it no longer makes sense to negotiate a specific set of regulations that apply to all teachers, because schools are being encouraged to find the practices that suit their communities and students best.

Steven F. Wilson, the co-director of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Boston and the author of a book about reforming the Boston schools, writes that the detailed contract “overpowers’’ anyone who wants to undertake change.

“The teachers’ union demeans its own membership by insisting that everything about the workplace be prescribed,’' he writes, “from the length of lunch breaks, to the length and schedule of the workday, to the maximum number of minutes per week that teachers are permitted to meet with one another.’'

The rules in the Boston contract governing staffing, he reports, are spelled out in 221 single-spaced pages.

Edward Doherty, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, said it was unfair to criticize his union’s contract as unduly restrictive, noting that with its clause on school-based management it is more “educationally flavored’’ than most such agreements.

Other union leaders point out that work rules have grown up over time to protect teachers from poor managers.

“Most are in there because of some real or perceived abuse,’' said Edward McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. “The unions also become a bureaucracy, because they are dealing with a bureaucracy.’'

The frustration with the Boston procedures is one reason the school committee wants to create demonstration schools, according to Robert Culver, the senior vice president and treasurer of Northeastern University and a member of the Boston school committee.

“We’ve got to focus on outcomes,’' he said, “as opposed to processes.’'

Chicago’s Experience

In Chicago, a group of teachers, principals, and members of local school councils that convened last spring to brainstorm about how to further decentralize the system proposed that teachers be hired and given annual contracts by individual schools. Teachers whose contracts were not renewed at a particular school, they suggested, could have their names returned to a citywide eligibility list maintained by the central office.

Chicago principals now work directly for schools on four-year performance contracts. But in what is widely regarded as a political compromise to secure the support of the Chicago Teachers Union for the reform legislation, teachers continue to work for the school system under a central contract.

The reform law did give principals the authority to hire teachers for vacant or newly created positions without regard to seniority; it also shortened the remediation period for teachers who are judged to be performing below par. In addition, schools can ask for waivers from the teaching contract.

Paul T. Hill, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation who was present during the Chicago brainstorming discussions, said the tone was not hostile to teachers.

“The desire was to make it clear that the real employer of the teacher was the school,’' he said. “It isn’t like the teachers become helpless pawns--they are involved in collaborative activities at the local level in ways that are not constrained by other loyalties they might have.’'

But the proposal for individual school contracts was denounced by the C.T.U. as the equivalent of having “600 superintendents.’'

“That would do more to destroy the profession in this city than anything else I’ve heard of,’' Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the union, said. “No one in their right mind would walk into a situation that you could be asked to walk out of in a year.’'

G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, noted that the political power of Chicago’s unions makes it highly unlikely that labor-protection laws there could be relaxed.

“A lot of people are riding the anti-unionist wave at the moment,’' he said. “With the political structures bending over backwards to make the unions happy, as has recently happened with the settling of the budget in Chicago, I don’t see how anybody thinks there’s going to be any relaxation of the labor-protection laws for Chicago.’'

‘Entrepreneurial Schools’

Both Mr. Hill and Mr. Wilson have given some thought to how a teacher labor market could work.

If teachers were hired by schools, those who did not make a good match with a school could have the right to a paid period to search for another position, Mr. Hill suggested in an interview. Teachers with more seniority could be given a longer job-hunting opportunity.

At some point, however, teachers who were not hired by any school would no longer be employed in the system.

The union contract would set salaries, qualifications for employment, and standards for promotion in such a system.

Mr. Wilson, in his book Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston, proposes that the teachers’ union in that city “serve as a placement agency’’ for teachers contracting individually with schools.

“The Boston Teachers Union could come to protect the right of teachers to enter into such contracts,’' he writes, “rather than constrain it through collective-bargaining agreements that limit autonomy and choice for both teachers and principals.’'

Mr. Wilson’s book, which has influenced the school committee in its negotiations with the union, outlines an “entrepreneurial model’’ that would allow any teacher or principal in Boston to come up with a plan for creating a school.

These plans would be reviewed by several “sponsoring councils’’ whose members had been approved by the superintendent. The councils would decide which schools the system should “invest in.’'

The new schools would receive funds based solely on the number of students they enrolled, with special-needs students carrying greater amounts of money. But the schools would have great flexibility in spending that money.

Mr. Doherty, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, summarized the proposal as: “Pick a principal, and let him operate in a union-free environment with no work rules.’'

“I think it’s almost all political,’' he said of discussions of Mr. Wilson’s proposals.

The new, mayorally appointed school committee, Mr. Doherty charged, is “out to kill the union.’'

The Boston teaching contract that ushered in school-based management gave school councils the right to pick teachers transferring into their schools without regard to seniority, the union president noted.

In schools that do not have such councils, principals pick from any one of the three most senior teachers.

“We have gone a long way in the area of staffing,’' Mr. Doherty said. “I think we’ve shown a willingness to be flexible and innovative at the bargaining table.’'

Per-Pupil Funding

Giving schools their money on a per-pupil basis, Mr. Hill believes, is the key to creating a labor market for teachers.

Most school systems now give schools resources, but not their own budgets to manage. Although the cost of teachers’ salaries in a big-city high school might be between $4 million and $5 million, Mr. Hill pointed out, the school might only have about $85,000 to spend on its own.

If schools were given lump sums based on their enrollment and told to live within their means, a district could create a labor market.

Schools with concentrations of highly paid teachers would find themselves over budget, while those with lesser-paid teachers would have a surplus, Mr. Hill said.

The teachers’ union could then become a broker, recommending teachers to schools, Mr. Hill suggested. “In the old days, and still in a lot of trades,’' he said, “that’s the brokerage role the union plays.’'

Although such a scenario might seem far-fetched, the Los Angeles Unified School District has entered into a consent decree requiring it to distribute money to schools for salaries and supplies on a per-pupil basis. Schools will be given broad discretion over how to spend the money.

The agreement is intended to equalize the distribution of experienced teachers and resources throughout the district. The order comes in a lawsuit brought by advocates for disadvantaged, non-English-speaking children, who were found to be disproportionately taught by inexperienced or unlicensed teachers.

The court order contains provisions sought by the United Teachers of Los Angeles to mitigate its effects on the current teaching force.

In general, said Mr. McElroy, the A.F.T. secretary-treasurer, a teacher labor market could drive down salaries. Schools would replace retiring senior teachers with lower-salaried teachers, he argued. Principals in other schools would want to transfer senior teachers to free up some salary money for other uses.

“Then it becomes a business decision,’' he said, “not an educational one.’'

‘Powerful External Actors’

These debates go far beyond the celebrated teachers’ contracts of the 1980’s, when school-based management, peer-evaluation plans, and other reforms were negotiated.

During that time, Mr. Kerchner of Claremont Graduate School observed, unions, management, and members of the public coalesced to bring about a “renaissance around the schools’’ in such places as Dade County, Fla.; Jefferson County, Ky.; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, N.Y.

As the cry for radical change in big-city districts has continued, he added, “powerful external actors’’ have gotten involved in education, changing the terms of the debate. These actors include the Chicago reform coalition and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who stepped into a labor stalemate in Denver to create a sweeping plan to give the city’s schools more autonomy.

William Ayers, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of a chapter about that city’s reforms in Mr. Kerchner’s book, said he believes that the city’s teachers’ union is in “deep crisis, deep pain’’ about the implications of school reform.

“This puts them in a situation of chaos and confusion, not because they’re sitting on their hands,’' he said, “but because who knows how this will turn out? Teachers hiring teachers is the least of it. Where’s my contract going to come from if the end of a big-city school system is also the end of negotiations and unionism as we’ve known it?’'

Other observers say that it is simply unfair to focus too much attention on the unions, since management has a critical role to play in bringing about reforms.

The administration often does not “courageously try to renegotiate things,’' Ms. Johnson of Harvard University said, “or really exercise the discretion that they have.’'

In the end, said John Kotsakis, the assistant to the president of the Chicago Teachers Union for educational issues, the teachers’ union represents the only stability urban districts have.

“Future contracts will reflect flexibility for local-site initiatives more and more,’' Mr. Kotsakis said. “Wouldn’t it be much better to have the union driving the change, being significant partners in it, accepting accountability, and identifying with success or failure, than having them simply sitting on the side?’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as School Reforms Bump Up Against Unions’ Most Cherished Protections


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