School & District Management

R.I. Chief Orders Providence to Relax Staffing Rules

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 13, 2009 4 min read
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In what will likely be his final battle over school reform as education commissioner in Rhode Island, Peter J. McWalters has ordered the 24,000-student Providence district to allow principals in select schools to handpick teacher talent—a staffing model that runs counter to provisions in the school system’s collective bargaining agreement.

Although the order has won the support of Providence Superintendent Thomas M. Brady, it raises questions about the intersection of state and federal law with the contract, and it could put both men at loggerheads with the Providence Teachers Union.

“We’re using the now-known research evaluations that say teacher hiring and teacher assignment are two of the most powerful things a school can do to create a school culture that is collegial and carries a sense of responsibility,” Mr. McWalters said in an interview. “These [orders] are going after what we now know are barriers in contracts, where hiring is off a list, and teacher assignment is done by preference and seniority.”

The move marks a period of escalating state intervention in the district, which has failed to meet student-achievement benchmarks for seven years under an amalgamation of the state’s accountability system and the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The district’s existing teacher contract expired in 2007, but remains in force until a new one is negotiated. Under its terms, more-senior teachers can request transfers to other positions when a layoff or a vacancy occurs. The practice sometimes causes a series of personnel shuffles in a district, and it has been criticized by groups such as the New York City-based New Teacher Project, a privately run training program, for disrupting schools and taking hiring out of principals’ hands.

Only a handful of schools in Providence use alternative staffing policies established through prior arrangements with the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. McWalters sent the order—just one of several directives—in a letter to the district last month. According to the plan, the district must base hiring and assignment on student need and teacher quality rather than seniority preferences. Principals would have a say over the teachers they select, the commissioner added. The hiring change would debut in six schools in 2009-10 before gradually expanding districtwide.

The letter also directed the district to create teacher-leader positions in all middle and high schools, establish a “staffing stability” model to keep less-senior teachers facing layoffs in their schools as substitutes, craft an evaluation system for educators, and improve professional development.

Legal Quirks

Nevertheless, circumventing the local contract is potentially a risky move. Mr. McWalters said that a state law enacted in 1997 gives him the authority to exercise “progressive levels of control” over school and district budgets, programs, and personnel when a district falls short of accountability benchmarks for three years running.

Over the past five years, he added, he has provided direction and asked the district to renegotiate parts of its agreement to improve staffing, but teacher turnover is still too high.

“This is taking it to the next level, if you’ve achieved the following and there are still certain things you’re not able to do,” he said.

Mr. McWalters also cited the NCLB law’s school restructuring language, which permits a state to oversee district improvement and take over specific schools. But the federal law also says that such provisions cannot contravene bargained contracts, and the national teachers’ unions strongly opposed a proposal floated by the Bush administration in 2007 to allow administrators in the most troubled schools to override such contracts. (Administration Wants Districts Free to Transfer Teachers, Education Week, March 21, 2007.)

PTU President Steven Smith did not respond to several requests for comment. He has refused to talk about the order until the union’s lawyers have finished reviewing it, according to local news reports.

Even if the plan passes legal muster, labor experts warned that it could lead to involuntary teacher transfers and a decrease in teacher morale.

“I have found involuntary transfer of teachers to be an intractable dispute,” said Michael H. LeRoy, a professor in the school of labor and employment relations and the college of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Whether rightly or wrongly, teachers are territorial about their classrooms. The directive is oblivious to this reality.”

But Mr. Brady, the Providence superintendent, said he was “delighted” by the order. “I admire the commissioner for taking bold steps,” he said.

No Negotiation

Administrators are examining site-based hiring policies instituted in New York City and elsewhere as possible models that could be tailored to fit Providence’s needs.

Mr. Brady added that he hopes district and union officials can work together to meet the terms of the order, but that first the union must determine a course of action.

“They have to take a look at the seniority issue [in the order] and decide whether they are going to make a legal objection or not,” he said. “Make no mistake: It’s still an order at the end of the day, and collaboration is not negotiation.”

Mr. McWalters said he was ready for the close scrutiny that a legal battle would entail.

“The agenda on teacher assignment is obvious in the research,” he said. “If [this directive] brings us that challenge, maybe it’s time for it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as R.I. Chief Orders Providence to Relax Staffing Rules

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