Collective Bargaining Bumping Up Against No Child Left Behind Law

By Catherine Gewertz — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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District leaders in Philadelphia, citing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, are pushing for significant cutbacks in teachers’ seniority rights.

The proposal that principals be allowed to disregard seniority in most hiring decisions has outraged the teachers’ union. For nearly 40 years, job openings for Philadelphia teachers—like those in many districts—have been filled primarily on that basis.

The unresolved dispute in the nation’s eighth-largest school system illustrates an ongoing debate about whether districts will need to seek changes in collective bargaining agreements to comply with the No Child Left Behind law.

Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy secretary of education, said in an interview last week that the U.S. Department of Education hopes local officials “uphold the content and spirit” of the law in the contracts they negotiate with teachers’ unions. He declined to outline what contracts should say about seniority rights, but said that “if a contract binds administrators from being able to assign the best teachers to the neediest areas, that would be tough.”

A number of districts have pared back seniority rights to gain more flexibility in staffing schools to help raise student achievement. (See “Districts Targeting Teacher Seniority in Union Contracts,” April 12, 2000.)

But since the federal law was signed in 2002, district leaders have increasingly cited its requirements in arguing to revise seniority provisions. Sections of the law mandating profound changes in schools that have not improved enough over a number of consecutive years—such as replacing a school’s staff—are running headlong into protections promised to teachers with seniority, they argue.

Confusion in many urban districts about how the federal law affects union contracts prompted Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, to seek guidance from the Education Department in February 2003.

“How much latitude a district has to reshape schools that aren’t making enough progress was clearly of concern to our members,” Mr. Casserly said in an interview. “They’re also concerned about the extent to which seniority rights exacerbate achievement gaps by placing the most seasoned teachers in the schools with the fewest challenges.”

“They are under enormous pressure to improve,” said Mr. Casserly, whose Washington-based organization is a coalition of 63 big-city districts, “and they’re working feverishly to figure out what they’re doing that serves as a drag on that performance.”

In a March 2003 letter to Mr. Casserly, Mr. Hickok, who was then the undersecretary of education, wrote that new bargaining agreements must not circumvent the school improvement mandates of the law. He cited language from a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce saying that the committee “expects and encourages” new contracts “to be consistent” with the No Child Left Behind law, especially the sections that outline steps to be taken when a school is put into “corrective action” or restructured.

Rob Weil, the deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said local union affiliates must be aware of “potential conflicts” between the law and the contracts they negotiate. But a school put into corrective action or restructured under the No Child Left Behind Act has many options that do not necessarily require revision of seniority rights, he said.

“When someone writes a letter like [the one from Mr. Hickok], they are encouraging people, but that doesn’t carry the weight of law,” Mr. Weil said. “What we encourage locals to do is understand the law and its implications and not necessarily worry about people’s political beliefs.”

Changes Difficult

In Philadelphia, the proposed contract language says that in order to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, and to ensure an equitable distribution of experienced teachers across the city’s 264 schools, seniority rules must be changed.

Michael D. Casserly

“The real concern here is making sure that where you live doesn’t determine whether you get an experienced teacher,” said James E. Nevels, the chairman of the panel that has operated the 190,000-student district since the state took over in late 2001.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose members include 11,300 teachers, contends that paring back seniority will expose teachers to arbitrary or political decisionmaking, and will not ensure that experienced teachers work in the neediest schools. Philadelphia teachers lost the right to strike when the state assumed control of the school system.

“The district should entice people into the schools who want to be there by creating better learning environments,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokes woman for the aft affiliate.

Eugene W. Hickok

Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant who has written extensively about teachers’ unions, said that while she believes seniority rights in assignment should ease, she is wary of giving sole authority for hiring decisions to principals. Teams of teachers should share that power, she said.

Significant revisions in seniority rights could backfire by driving away teachers unhappy with their school assignments, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group. But to call for protection of strong seniority rights could be politically awkward for the unions, he said.

"[The national unions] talk about how they want to help poor kids and how unions are important to helping them,” he said, “but if a union agreement allows better-quality teachers to transfer away from schools with [large concentrations of] poor kids, that would seem to call into question the rhetoric.”

Associate Editor Jeff Archer contributed to this report.


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