Teaching Profession

Effect of Unions Hard to Gauge, Scholars Agree

By Bess Keller — May 24, 2005 4 min read
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Alan D. Bersin, the outgoing superintendent in San Diego, agreed to cut short his tenure after an election there gave allies of the teachers’ union majority sway over the school board.

In running afoul of the union, he was in the company of the schools chiefs in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and San Francisco, Mr. Bersin said at a conference here last week on research into teacher collective bargaining.

BRIC ARCHIVE

“How does it happen that Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Roy Romer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Arlene Ackerman, all Democrats like me,” he asked, “are virtually at war with their unions?”

Mr. Bersin, who has been appointed to serve as California’s education secretary effective in July, said his conflict with the San Diego Education Association over such matters as whether principals had broad rights to be in classrooms shows the need for reshaping the unions’ role.

But others at the May 16-17 conference sponsored by two Washington think tanks often identified as centrist—the Urban Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute—argued that the unions have used their power at the bargaining table and ballot box to ensure basic and necessary changes such as higher salaries and smaller classes.

Some researchers stressed the potential of teachers’ unions to strengthen school improvement, if only they were partners in making policy.

Speakers strongly agreed, though, that with little previous research to go on, it was almost impossible to give more than tentative answers to any of the big questions tackled by the meeting’s 10 research papers.

Some scholars said researchers were wary of delving into such a politically charged subject as the unions’ role in education. Others said it was hard to begin when primary data sources are in thousands of school districts following labor laws set by 50 states.

Introducing his paper “Are Unions Good for Students?,” Daniel D. Goldhaber, a labor expert affiliated with the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the Urban Institute, answered only half-jokingly, “Beats me.”

Not only do previous studies of unionization and student achievement yield mixed results, he said, but he also found only five quantitative ones to examine.

Other papers at the conference looked at, for example, the sources and extent of the unions’ power, the nature of negotiated contracts, and the unions’ impact on the quality of teaching. The authors ranged from those who have been generally receptive to collective bargaining, such as Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, to those who have seen it as an unmitigated disaster, such as Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe.

In his lunchtime talk, Mr. Bersin put blame on both district and union leaders for what he portrayed as the San Diego teacher contract’s stranglehold on change. Riffling the pages of the inch-thick document, the superintendent observed that “we agreed to every one of these rules.”

Mr. Bersin’s aggressive strategy for improving teaching and learning was viewed as too top-down by union leaders.

‘Insensitive Treatment’

He reminded the audience, too, that the unions “grew out of the insensitive treatment of teachers,” who did not embrace collective bargaining in substantial numbers until the 1970s. The contracts won at the bargaining table in turn spurred membership. Today more than 80 percent of the nation’s more than 4 million teachers are union members.

But in recent years in five of California’s big cities, Mr. Bersin contended, membership clout has translated into school boards “dominated by employee interest groups,” with students the losers. That same pattern has upped the popularity of mayoral control of districts such as Boston, Cleveland, and New York, he said.

Mr. Bersin, a lawyer by profession who campaigned for President Bill Clinton before being appointed by him as the U.S. attorney in San Diego, suggested that the two national teachers’ unions are helping neither themselves nor the Democratic Party, with which they have long been allied, by riling mayors of both parties.

“The [National Education Association] and the [American Federation of Teachers] pulled out all the stops in the last presidential election,” he said, “and that did not have a union-friendly or a Democratic-friendly result.”

Declaring that increasing public disenchantment with the performance of inner-city schools threatens the survival of public education, the outgoing superintendent proposed negotiating contracts free of many existing rules just for the schools in the most academic trouble.

In an invited response to Mr. Bersin’s talk, a teachers’ union expert at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., offered a broader solution for those in both camps who are determined to address low student achievement.

“How about legislation that requires all contracts to specify the union’s and the district’s [joint] goals for student achievement?” said education professor Charles Kerchner.

If unions and districts could not agree on the goals and the steps to get there, he said, they would cede their bargaining rights to an independent panel that would write the entire contract for them.

The papers presented at the conference, which was supported by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and the Westport, Conn.-based Smith Richardson Foundation, are expected to appear in a book in the fall.

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