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School & District Management

States Urged to Promote Union-District Cooperation

By Sean Cavanagh — November 15, 2011 7 min read
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From the offices of the U.S. Department of Education come appeals for union-district collaboration. From local school districts come examples of labor and management working through divisive issues, in areas such as performance pay and teacher evaluation.

But what about at the state level? To read recent headlines, the idea of state leaders building stronger bonds between district leaders and unions on critical issues seems far-fetched, with two-fisted battles between unions and elected officials, mostly Republicans, having erupted this year in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states.

Despite the apparent long odds, a number of observers today are arguing that states can, and should, play a more active role in bridging those long-standing divides. They believe that state officials—school chiefs, governors, lawmakers, and others—cannot only use the bully pulpit to encourage cooperation on issues that can improve student achievement, but that they can also use the resources of their offices to bring complicated and controversial policy changes to scale across many districts. Others are more skeptical, saying state efforts to meet union concerns result in watered-down policy.

The Obama administration has encouraged cooperation between unions and district and state officials through its Race to the Top competition, a $4 billion program that invited states to submit proposals to improve schools. In addition to offering states points in the competition for improving data systems and evaluating teachers and principals based on performance, states could boost their scores by showing that their plans had buy-in from local chapters of teachers’ unions.

The administration set a similar tone this year in the guidance it gave to states seeking waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, saying applicants need to “meaningfully engage and solicit input on its request from teachers and their representatives.”

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that state superintendents need to make it clear that they regard building union and district support on teacher evaluation and other difficult policies as “an important issue” and a core part of their jobs. Not doing so “may have been fine at a time when there was not the intense pressure to improve the system,” Mr. Wilhoit said, but now, state leaders need to “push some policy levers to create change in systems that are not successful.”

Beyond Piecemeal?

In February, the federal Education Department hosted a conference in Denver that was meant to highlight examples of districts and unions working together to make innovative policy changes. At that event, federal officials became increasingly convinced of the need for the states to play a more active role, said Joanne Weiss, a top adviser at the department.

Teachers and residents in the Racine, Wis., area hold an informational picket in front of the school system’s central offices in February to express disapproval over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curb collective bargaining for most public employees.

Ms. Weiss later carried that message to state lawmakers from around the country, when she spoke at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in August. While federal officials can encourage union and district leaders to work together, state officials have the power to promote that cooperation across districts, she told legislators.

“The question is how do you take these kinds of productive relationships to scale, so that it’s not one here, one there?” said Ms. Weiss, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a recent interview. “I don’t think there’s one way to do it, but the goal is to prioritize—at the top levels—collaboration in the service of increasing student achievement.”

Unions, if they are brought on board, can also devote extensive resources toward building support for policies in school systems statewide, she said.

Obama administration officials have touted Illinois’ passage of a bipartisan law earlier this year that ties teacher tenure, hiring, and job security to performance, rather than to seniority, as a model collaboration. That measure was crafted with input from teachers’ unions and lawmakers from both parties; both of Illinois’ two statewide union affiliates backed the law.

Many of the states that won awards through the first two rounds of the Race to the Top competition won significant buy-in from local affiliates, which in some cases were asked to meet deadlines for working out agreements with district leaders on teacher evaluation and pay for performance. In Delaware, which won a $100 million award through the competition, the state arranged “change management advisory councils,” to help local district and union officials sort through Race to the Top issues. That work did not come easily for local school officials and union leaders, particularly if there was a history of discord in their districts, said Lillian Lowery, Delaware’s secretary of education.

“There were some districts that were more collaborative than others,” she said.

The Delaware official said she is not under the illusion that it will be easy for local school officials and unions in her state, and other winning Race to the Top states, to live up to the level of cooperation they promised. “Everybody in the world can write a plan. The breakdown comes in implementation,” said Ms. Lowery. “We can implode all over ourselves if we want. But the people who walk into classrooms every day are teachers, and the people who give them the supports they need to do their jobs are the leaders and the principals of those schools. The children are in the middle waiting for adults to do their jobs.”

Frederika Jenner, the president of the Delaware State Education Association, agreed that the level of cooperation between school superintendents and local unions varied by district. Some were receptive to incorporating local unions’ ideas, she said, while others were inclined to view unions’ acceptance of the plan as a “fait accompli.” But she credited the state’s education department and the office of Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, with including union officials in policy discussions affecting schools. “The path to all this started way before Race to the Top,” Ms. Jenner said.

Local district officials tend to take their signals on how closely they should work with unions from state officials, said Howard Weinberg, the executive director of the DSEA.

States leaders have to “model the behavior” for productive relationships, Mr. Weinberg said. “A state can’t be talking about collaboration if the behavior toward unions is not consistent with that collaboration.”

Some observers are doubtful that schools will benefit from states pursuing collaboration with teachers’ unions. Terry M. Moe, a Stanford University political science professor who has criticized unions’ influence on schools, said labor groups are more inclined to make deals with state and local officials because they’re being squeezed politically—not because their positions on teacher evaluation and other issues have shifted in any substantial way. He cited recent gop gains in state elections, and many Democrats’ embrace of ideas that challenge unions, as having increased the pressure on labor groups.

When teachers’ unions secure a role in shaping policies on teacher evaluation, school improvement and other ideas, Mr. Moe argued, they tend to weaken them or support only incremental changes.

“It’s destined to be a disappointment,” he said of the idea of collaboration. “Anybody who thinks unions are actually embracing these reforms is wrong. ... [Unions] will see to it that the reforms that get approved are compatible with their interests.”

Modeling Behavior

Some, however, say that state leaders can encourage innovation at the local level, simply by showing district leaders what is possible. State and district administrators often believe they are hamstrung in promoting changes to policies affecting school assignment, evaluation, hiring, and other areas by restrictive local collective bargaining pacts, or by state restrictions, when in fact they have more flexibility than they realize, said Daniel K. Lautzenheiser, an education policy researcher at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

State leaders could do a better job using their resources to show district leaders, “Here’s some things you can actually do, from the research we’ve done on your contracts,” Mr. Lautzenheiser argued. The AEI official has studied the work of state education agencies and how they can focus more on school improvement, rather than just compliance with laws and regulations.

A number of Republican goernors, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have sought to influence union contracts more forcefully, through their recent approval of laws that limit teachers’ and other public employees’ collective bargaining powers. Secretary Duncan has criticized Gov. Walker’s approach, saying there is no evidence it will improve schools.

“We think there’s a meaningful role for collective bargaining” in states and school districts, said Jo Anderson Jr., a senior adviser to the secretary, in an interview. “Collective bargaining can be an engine for innovation, if done the right way.”

The goal, he said, is “to promote constructive work together.” The objective is not just “harmony,” but rather “improving student learning.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Urged to Promote Cooperation


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