Teaching Profession Commentary

Directing Funding Away From Student Needs

By Valerie Forti — November 15, 2005 7 min read

— Steven Braden


In our small state of Rhode Island, as in many others, there is a constant drumbeat of complaints that poorer communities lack adequate resources for education. That may well be true, but it seems to us, at our nonprofit group in Providence, that a question must be asked before lawsuits fly and more money is poured into these communities through increased property taxes: Is the current spending even appropriate?

How can policymakers and taxpayers be certain that local school districts actually require more money (and so, increased taxes), if those districts have not taken the crucial steps of looking at how their money is being spent and asking the tough question of whether that spending is really helping students? Our group, the Education Partnership, is recommending that communities and school districts take a hard look at spending obligated by negotiated teacher contracts before suing the taxpayers for more money.

We have spent the last 16 months analyzing teacher contracts in Rhode Island, and have found that, to a stunning degree, they focus on adult entitlements. The contracts that we have studied are not about students, accountability, and improvement of our public education system.

Our own frustrations in trying to help children led us down this path.

To avoid analyzing the value of current spending is to perpetuate folly at the expense of taxpayers and to shortchange our students.

In 2003, Rhode Island became one of the first six states to participate in the State Scholars Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The program encourages 8th graders to sign up for rigorous math and science courses in high school, and stick with them for all four years.

Imagine our surprise—and that of the business leaders making Rhode Island Scholars presentations—when we discovered that the six-hour-and-20-minute school day here in Providence, our biggest school system, was so short that students could not squeeze in the the scholars-program curriculum. We were told that teacher contracts rigidly ruled both the student school day and the teacher workday, and that the day could not be lengthened by even 15 minutes unless taxpayers contributed huge amounts of additional funding.

Several years ago, the partnership published a report on providing cost-effective health care for district employees. We did so not to lower the benefits of teachers and other school employees, but rather to find an alternative method of providing high-quality care at an affordable cost to taxpayers, who have seen school budgets skyrocket because of rising health costs. Unions fight to keep employees from paying much of their health-insurance premiums (trying to limit their share to 10 percent or less, even zero). Often when a cost share is written into a new contract, we find that the cost to teachers’ union members is reimbursed through hidden perks, such as “new funding” for professional-development stipends and a slightly longer school day, with more money for each minute spent in school. Essentially, the cost share is repaid through back-door methods that deceive taxpayers—and our children.

In 2004, we decided to undertake an analysis of teacher contracts—not as a critique of teachers, the vast majority of whom richly deserve the public’s support, but to uncover, specifically, those areas that serve as roadblocks to quality education. Our work was in response to the often-heard laments of “well, the contracts say … ” or “the contracts won’t let us do that because … .” It dawned on us: What do these contracts actually say that so terribly limits state and local attempts to improve public education?

More and more frequently in national public education circles, one hears about lawsuits over funding adequacy and equity. This past June, a two-day conference on “Schools for Our Future: Expanding the National Movement for Education Adequacy” featured such sessions as “Exploring Examples of Linking Public Engagement and Adequacy Litigation,” “Talking About Taxes and Schools,” and “Promoting and Using Costing-Out Studies for Better Funding.” Nowhere was there a discussion or presentation on determining the appropriateness of current spending.

As our Rhode Island group continues to talk to education stakeholders across the country, we are startled by the degree to which school boards and administrators are paralyzed by their district contract and obligations that have been previously negotiated. Incredibly, without doing a complete and thorough analysis of what they are forced to spend through contractual obligations, district officials are willing to enter into an equity or adequacy lawsuit declaring that they do not have enough.

Costing-out studies determine the amount required to fund the obligations stated in contracts and other spending that districts are required to maintain. Such a study should never be mistaken for an analysis on the appropriateness of what is being funded. Schools and states may indeed not have enough money. But to avoid analyzing the value of current spending is to perpetuate folly at the expense of taxpayers and to shortchange our students.

With all due respect to unions, school boards, and superintendents, what has been negotiated into contracts, some of which weigh as much as a major-city telephone book, can be negotiated out.

School board members are elected to serve citizens. Unfortunately, they receive little, if any, training on what is in their district contract, from A to Z, and how to negotiate a contract—the virtual delivery system of their schools. Board members confess that they have negotiated contracts as members of the district’s bargaining team with little or no understanding of the provisions of the entire contract, or even parts of the contract. They tell us that lawyers say the contracts are too convoluted for a thorough explanation, and that the board members should just “follow our directions.” School board lawyers, whose rates push hundreds of dollars an hour, have told us that most districts do not have the money for a lawyer to sit for hours on end, explaining each nuance of the full contract.

Many superintendents have informed us that they have not analyzed their entire contracts. They feel relatively powerless, and they simply live with the provisions that have been handed down to them from past school boards and superintendent negotiations.

The general public is rarely aware of the role that collective bargaining plays in education. Most taxpayers are typically unaware of what is negotiated by union representatives and school boards, and they probably assume that education dollars are being spent to improve learning. (Growing concern about how to pay for spiraling school costs may soon change that naiveté.)

Union leaders, on the other hand, do receive instructions on how to negotiate contracts. Never doubt that they are thoroughly and uniformly trained.

With all due respect to unions, school boards, and superintendents, what has been negotiated into contracts, some of which weigh as much as a major-city telephone book, can be negotiated out.

We are not trying to portray unions as villains. The job of union negotiators is to defend and advance the economic interests of their members and their associations. School boards, on the other hand, are charged with representing the interests of the district and its taxpayers. Unfortunately, more often than not, these conflicting agendas have resulted in labor agreements that focus on excessive adult entitlements. They have little to do with students and improving their education.

In March of this year, we released a report, “Teacher Contracts: Restoring the Balance” (found at www.edpartnership.org). We believe it to be the first study of its kind to examine the impact teacher collective bargaining agreements have on the delivery system of public education in Rhode Island. In the report, we offer specific recommendations for policymakers about how to change contracts and state law to improve classroom education and empower teachers to do their jobs better.

Since the report’s release, we have heard one word over and over: finally. Finally, school board members and superintendents have been able to talk about union contracts and the findings in the report. They have started to talk about what many have been afraid to say: Union contracts are not about improving student achievement.

We are now looking at contracts being negotiated in Rhode Island, and will identify “opportunities found” and “opportunities lost.” Our 2006 report will include an analysis of the fiscal impact of negotiated items in new contracts.

“Teacher Contracts: Restoring the Balance” has begun to surface in conversations around the country. We have heard from educators and school boards in New York, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut, and other states. We also have begun to hear from progressive teachers’ union members, who tell us that they want a professional organization that represents their professional needs, and that they feel many of the heavy-handed tactics of union representatives give all teachers a bad name. Teachers tell us that they wish their unions would realize how irrelevant unions may become if they do not redirect their focus.

As billions of dollars are spent on the school reforms represented by the No Child Left Behind law, high school restructuring, literacy programs, teacher professional development, and more, it is reasonable to ask this question: Is it even possible to dramatically improve our education system with the current delivery system of union contracts that severely constrain school districts (particularly in heavily unionized states)?

We believe that districts with strong unions must take decisive action to determine the appropriateness of their contractual obligations. And they must undertake a new commitment to become truly student-centered.

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