Teaching Profession

Group Seeks To Make Unions Policy Partners

By Jeff Archer — June 06, 2001 3 min read
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It’s a rivalry steeped in tradition. Every two or three years, district officials and teachers’ union leaders come to the bargaining table, do battle over salaries and benefits, then go their separate ways. But with the help of a $1.7 million grant, a handful of school districts are setting out to show that labor relations in education can represent more than just this periodic haggling over money.

Under a new venture called “Improving Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration,” those districts hope to offer concrete examples of how administrators and teachers’ groups can work not as adversaries, but as partners in the design and implementation of school improvement efforts.

The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation is underwriting the effort, which was announced here in the nation’s capital late last week at a conference of the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a group of 24 union locals that will oversee the four-year effort.

Focus on Achievement

Adam Urbanski

“This is a marriage of priorities of the unions and the districts,” said Adam Urbanski, a co-director of TURN and the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York. “But there is absolutely no confusion here about the common denominator, which is student achievement. If this works out smoothly and everyone feels good, but student achievement doesn’t improve, then this will be a dismal failure.”

Along with Mr. Urbanski’s 59,000-student district, the school systems in Montgomery County, Md.; Toledo, Ohio; and San Francisco have already pledged to take part. By early next year, TURN plans to choose a second group of district participants.

In each site, union leaders and district officials pledge to craft agreements that go beyond issues of wages and working conditions to consider broader questions, such as how schools and their staffs should be held accountable for student results, and how much control individual schools should have over their own budgets and personnel decisions. The grant money will allow participants to bring in consultants and other experts.

Details of the agreements in each system will be hammered out in the coming months.

Arlene Ackerman

In San Francisco, for example, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman hopes to work with local union leaders in upcoming contract talks to deal with the fact that the 61,000-student district’s lowest-performing schools tend to have the least experienced teachers.

“In most of the 30 years that I’ve been working with the unions, we have not talked about student achievement, which is our common interest,” Ms. Ackerman said. “So this is refreshing to try to solve those problems together.”

‘New Unionism’

In recent years, a small chorus of union leaders has begun calling for teachers’ groups to assume more responsibility in planning such school improvement efforts. Organizers founded TURN in 1996 to help its member locals share ideas on broadening the roles of teachers’ unions, and in 1997 National Education Association President Bob Chase outlined what he called a strategy of “new unionism” in which labor helps management craft policies to enhance school quality.

Encouraging new thinking about labor relations in education also has become a major emphasis of the Broad Foundation, founded by Eli Broad, the chairman of the financial-services company SunAmerica Inc.

But such efforts have met with resistance. Some rank-and-file union members maintain that teachers’ groups should stick to bread-and-butter issues, and others argue that using contract talks to settle educational policy questions could set a dangerous precedent.

“The interests of teachers’ unions are sometimes, but not always, coterminous with those of students,” said Michael Poliakoff, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Falls Church, Va.-based group that supports market-based school improvement efforts. “Teachers’ voices are crucial for crafting education policy, but they must not be privileged in the collective bargaining process and overshadow parents, the public, elected officials, and reform initiatives based widely on research and experience.”

Participants in the new Broad-funded initiative counter that labor agreements already serve as important policy documents by spelling out salary scales and grievance procedures. And, they argue, because contracts are binding, they can protect a policy agenda from the future whims of local leaders.

“There is little hope of improving education,” Mr. Urbanski said, “unless we recognize the collective wisdom of teachers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Group Seeks To Make Unions Policy Partners

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