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Rethinking Teachers’ Contracts, Report Argues, Would Free Up Funding Flexibility

By Bess Keller — January 09, 2007 3 min read
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Many schools could lavish a fifth or more of their current budgets on measures to raise student achievement if they axed spending on teachers’ contract provisions that do little good in that area, argues a new report from the think tank Education Sector.

Among the provisions that researcher Marguerite Roza contends “have a weak or inconsistent relationship with student learning” are such commonplace arrangements as teacher salary increases based on years of experience and advanced degrees, days set aside for professional development, extra teachers’ aides, class-size limits, and generous sick leave, health benefits, and pensions.

The report, ” Frozen Assets: Rethinking Teacher Contracts Could Free Billions for School Reform,” is available from Education Sector.

If the deals for teachers did not include any of these perks, Ms. Roza of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Schools calculated, districts would have about an extra $77 billion to spend.

“This is not excess money that could be withdrawn from the public education system with no impact on student learning,” the author specified, “but rather money that might be spent differently with greater effect.”

For example, raises for job longevity and generous health insurance could be traded in for better salaries to attract high-quality beginners, the report says. Or smaller class sizes and some classroom aides might be sacrificed to hire teachers for after-school tutoring.

Many schools, particularly those serving poor children, would likely need significantly more money to improve achievement, Ms. Roza added.

‘Misguided’ Analysis

By far the largest chunk of questionable spending, according to the author, is salary raises for years of experience, which she estimates at an average of slightly more than 10 percent of district budgets. The report points to research showing that teachers typically improve through the first five years of their careers, plateau, and then decline as they approach retirement, while some beginning teachers are better than more experienced ones. Salary schedules might be restructured accordingly, with higher starting salaries and raises for effectiveness rather than longevity, the study suggests.

Other contract provisions award teachers better benefits than private-sector professionals, including more sick and personal leave days, better health insurance, and more generous pensions, according to the report. The leave serves as an incentive for teachers to take days off, and the pensions have left many districts with a disproportionate number of senior teachers, Ms. Roza said. These negative effects, the report says, could be countered by cutting the number of sick days to about three per school year—comparable to what other professionals take—and by reducing retirement benefits but making them more portable so as to attract talented newer teachers.

Ms. Roza, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Education Sector, took pains to avoid being labeled anti-teacher, pointing out that contract provisions are the work of administrators as well as teachers’ unions. Also, she argued that many teachers would benefit from changes that increase the quality of schools.

Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, blasted the report for shoddy research and “misguided” analysis. The study “provides no evidence to suggest [that the contract provisions] hinder education reform,” she said in a statement. “Schools can only be improved if educators, district officials, and politicians work together to develop real solutions instead of making unions scapegoats.”

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