School & District Management Opinion

School Board Weakness: The Reform Issue That Can’t Be Faced

By Myron Lieberman — September 18, 2007 7 min read

Many identify teacher unionization as the major obstacle to educational reform. The common mind-set is that school boards are weak because the teachers’ unions are so strong. In fact, the causal chain runs in the other direction: School board weaknesses that preceded teacher unionization led to the emergence and continuing power of the unions. Nevertheless, in all the lamentations about the power of teachers’ unions to block reform, virtually no attention is paid to how this happened or why school boards are unable to overcome union opposition to the reforms they propose.

The differences in collective bargaining between school boards and boards of directors in the private sector provide part of the explanation. In the private sector, management is represented by company officials with huge stakes in the outcome, both for their careers and the company. In public education, however, the school board usually consists of five, seven, or nine citizens with no expertise in labor relations and no career stakes. In many cases, the private interests of school board members, especially in getting re-elected, are highly conducive to excessive concessions, especially if the costs of these are delayed for several years. Many board members and school administrators, of course, contribute outstanding services. But school board incentives differ drastically from private-sector incentives, and constitute a huge union advantage.

In the private sector, moreover, the market responds immediately to the contract; company shares rise or fall depending on stock analysts’ and shareholders’ perceptions of it. In public education, very few individuals read the contract, and fewer still can assess its impact on district resources and educational plans.

Employees in the private sector also are limited in what they can say publicly about their employer. A private-sector union can urge a boycott to help it get a “fair” contract, but it cannot urge a boycott because the employer makes the worst widgets in the country. This duty of loyalty is completely absent in public education.

Weak school boards are an underexamined factor in the growing power of teachers' unions—and the drive for mayoral control of schools.

Teachers’ unions and teachers can allege that the district has the worst education system in the country without fear of violating the duty of loyalty because, legally, there is none in public education. Limitations on teachers’ rights to criticize school operations or policies would be unconstitutional. But there is no legal requirement that criticism of their employer be objective or even relevant.

School boards also find it extremely difficult to discipline teachers for strikes (despite their illegality) or similar disruptive actions. But in the private sector, employers can lock out employees; subcontract some operations out, or shift operations to another plant; stock up in anticipation of a strike, and replace striking employees; go out of business; produce more with fewer employees because of technological progress; establish nonunion plants in states hostile to unions; or transfer operations to other countries with much lower labor costs—in short, private-sector employers have a broad range of defensive measures not available to school boards.

As the U.S. automobile industry illustrates, private-sector unions must continually organize new bargaining units just to maintain their membership, revenues, staff, and political clout. This is obviously not the case in public education, or in the public sector generally. The dissident unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO in July 2005 were mainly private-sector unions that wanted the AFL-CIO to devote more of its resources to organizing. Most of the government-sector unions, like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, do not face the daunting problems of staying alive; their focus is on expanding unionization in the public sector, which may explain their support for universal early-childhood-education programs.

Still another difference relates to the ability of employers to protect their interests by joint bargaining. Consider, for example, the hotel industry. If some hotels are open during a strike against all hotels in the area, the open hotels can earn huge profits while the closed hotels experience huge losses. The hotel union tries to get a contract with the weaker hotels, none of which can hold out individually.

To counteract this union strategy, the hotels sometimes form a united front to bargain on areawide terms and conditions of employment. This counters the union’s ability to force the weakest hotel to be the first to agree to a contract, and then use the first contract as the minimum that will be accepted in the contracts with the other hotels. Joint bargaining also avoids the possibility that any particular hotel would be devastated by the costs of protracted bargaining. Any hotel that breaks ranks and reaches agreement with the union must pay huge liquidated damages to the other hotels to ensure that defections do not materialize.

School boards cannot adopt joint bargaining for two reasons. First, school boards cannot delegate their powers to a coalition that bargains through a single representative, with the costs of bargaining shared among the coalition members. Even if such an arrangement were clearly legal, the political problems are usually too difficult to overcome. If a union supporter is elected to a school board in the coalition, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid devastating leaks to the union bargaining team. Meanwhile, because full-time union staff members usually negotiate for all of the local unions in the area, the union negotiators generally know which districts can be pressured to settle first on terms favorable to the union.

In the private sector, the erosion of managerial authority and the additional costs imposed by union contracts are limited by competition and shareholder interests. In the 1980s, for example, the Kaiser Steel Corp. had to declare bankruptcy because its contractual obligations to pay for the health benefits of retirees and their dependents were greater than the worth of the company. Private-sector opposition to absorbing all of the rising costs of health care reflects imperative company needs to avoid another debacle of this kind. As matters stand, these employer incentives are not operative, or as fully operative, in public education; escalating costs are a problem for future taxpayers, but do not threaten to end the enterprise.

If the preceding analysis has any validity, why is the focus of reform overwhelmingly on teachers’ union power? There are thousands of public intellectuals and professors of educational administration, education policy, public administration, public policy, or political science whose fields theoretically include school board structure and operations. But very few have been interested in school board issues. School administrators are often aware of the dysfunctional nature of boards, but expressing that opinion could endanger their prospects for continued appointment or promotion. For various reasons, no major interest group or scholarly association is interested in pursuing school board issues, and politicians have nothing to gain by addressing them. Professors of educational administration are not helpful on the critical questions; their subject matter is how to get along with school boards, not how to get rid of them or their weaknesses.

It is doubtful whether an effort to change the school board structure would be successful. The American people are accustomed to school boards; their very weakness has shielded them from criticism. There is no consensus on what should replace the school board structure, and the controversies over the issue would drag out for decades.

Not surprisingly, the teachers’ unions usually oppose the abolition of school boards. In Los Angeles, the United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged NEA-AFT local, successfully opposed Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa’s efforts to shift the school board’s authority to the mayor, even though Villaraigosa had been a union representative before he entered politics. Similarly, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City opposed Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s efforts to govern the city’s public schools. In the District of Columbia, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has tackled the problem head-on, but it is much too early to conclude that his takeover (not a pejorative in this context) has led to a more effective school system; weakening an obstacle to reform is not the same as achieving reform.

The teachers’ unions are aware that they have a good thing going, and they will not give it up easily. Of course, mayors, like school boards, may botch their educational responsibilities. But mayoral control is subject to political accountability much more effectively than school board control.

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