Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Contract Deters Achievement, Study Says

By Ann Bradley — October 01, 1997 7 min read

Administrators of the Milwaukee schools and leaders of the city’s teachers’ union both have failed to use collective bargaining to improve academic achievement, concludes an unusual analysis of the union contract scheduled for release this week.

The report on the contract between the district and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association offers what is being described as the first in-depth view of a labor pact with a big-city teachers’ union.

Coming as Milwaukee selects a new superintendent, the study says only a handful of “largely anonymous management and union staff” are knowledgeable about the 174-page contract and the 2,000 pages of grievance-arbitration rulings, memorandums of understanding, and state declaratory rulings that make up “the contract behind the contract.”

Howard L. Fuller

This lack of knowledge is a problem, it argues, because the contract and bargaining process address core issues, including teachers’ qualifications, assignments and transfers, compensation, duties, method of evaluation, and the relationship among teachers, administrators, and elected board members.

A school board resolution introduced this year by Mary Bills, a 12-year member and former president, underscores the lack of board involvement and public attention to bargaining, the report says. The resolution, approved this past spring, calls for “full disclosure” of the terms and fiscal and policy implications of teacher pacts before the board approves them.

The report also points to collective bargaining as a contributor to the “hostile relationship” that now exists between management and labor in the 103,000-student district. This atmosphere has undermined the high teacher morale and job satisfaction and positive overall school climate necessary for effective schools, it says.

The authors recommend that the district and the union “accept responsibility for reaching a contract which leads to improvements in student achievement.”

To reach that goal, the study calls for both sides to bargain in public. Open negotiations would prompt “a broad public discussion and debate about collective bargaining and its impact,” the study argues, and it would increase accountability for results.

The study was conducted by Howard L. Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee schools and now the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University there. Co-authors of the study were George A. Mitchell, a public-policy consultant, and Michael E. Hartmann, a lawyer and director of research at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

Mr. Fuller, who had his share of run-ins with the union during his four-year tenure, resigned in 1995 after union-backed candidates were elected to the school board.

Flawed Process

The former superintendent said he conducted the study because too few people, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, understand the details of teachers’ contracts and their influence. “When you get through talking about all this reform, the reality is that there’s this document sitting there that in large part--and in some instances almost exclusively--determines whether or not anything happens,” Mr. Fuller said. “Somehow, people have to grasp that.”

Paulette Copeland, the newly elected president of the MTEA, a National Education Association affiliate, said the study “wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” But, she added, it “didn’t bring anything new to light.”

For More Information

“The Milwaukee Public Schools’ Teacher Union Contract: Its History, Content, and Impact on Education’’ is available at no charge from the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Schroeder Health Complex, 146, P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881; (414) 288-5775; or by fax at (414) 288-6199.

The Milwaukee union president supports the calls by Bob Chase, the NEA president, for a new style of unionism that focuses on educational excellence and reform. She agreed that the negotiating process in Milwaukee is flawed. “We don’t sit down and discuss and talk things out and see what’s best for our children,” she said.

Ms. Copeland, an elementary school teacher, also agreed with the report’s assertion that power and authority are concentrated in the hands of a few key people. In the union’s case, the 33-person staff is considered more influential than its officers. Ms. Copeland’s campaign literature this year targeted the MTEA staff, which she called “an ingrown group of friends ... costing us $1.7 million in salary and benefits.”

Sam Carmen, the executive director of the union, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

After Mr. Carmen met with one of the report’s authors, the union staff declined to respond to questions, the study says, and refused to provide copies of important documents and publications.

Joseph Fisher, the president of the school board and a former MTEA officer, called the report “a productive study.” But he rejected the suggestion that bargaining should be made public.

But Jeanette Mitchell, a former school board president and now the program officer for education at the Milwaukee-based Helen Bader Foundation, which subsidized the study, said she thought such a change would be possible.

“There has to be accountability, not only to the public, but to the bottom line, which is how can we put in policies to help to support the achievement of children,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Right now, that doesn’t happen. It’s not the focus.”

District officials could not be reached for comment last week, presumably due to a change in the system’s top leadership--its ninth in 33 years. The school board members voted Sept. 24 to hire Alan Brown, the superintendent in Waukegan, Ill., to be Milwaukee’s new schools chief. That decision prompted disappointed supporters of Barbara Horton, the acting superintendent, to pelt board members with raw eggs and shout racial slurs. Mr. Brown is white; Ms. Horton is black.

Contract Talks

The 96-page study includes a chapter on the Milwaukee schools before collective bargaining, finding that the administration was often dismissive of teachers’ concerns. It also examines teacher evaluation, spending, teacher compensation, and the contract’s impact on academic achievement.

Taking a historical view--which reveals “benign paternalism” toward teachers--explains some of what followed when teachers gained collective bargaining rights, the report says. But since that time, the pendulum has swung from management’s to labor’s advantage, it argues.

“The cumulative effect has made one question a common refrain when board members and administrators consider administrative and policy decisions: Will the contract allow it?” the authors write.

Teachers also have achieved many of their objectives, the report says, including gains in purchasing power, generous fringe benefits, and job security.

But at the same time, the hope that collective bargaining would improve academic outcomes has not been realized, it concludes.

The contract is not uniformly administered across Milwaukee’s more than 150 schools, the study found. At other times, it says, the union chooses not to pursue issues that could lead to grievances. For example, it cites the union’s apparent decision this fall not to displace a group of minority teachers who are in the process of getting state licenses. The union could have claimed that the jobs must be filled by certified teachers with seniority.

Take a Memo

Many of the 1,700 memorandums of understanding are waivers from contract provisions, some of which seek to provide flexibility or advance education reform, the report says.

Four of the five schools in Milwaukee that are participating in an “innovative schools program,” it notes, are operating under such waivers. After a court battle, additional memorandums were negotiated last year to allow the district to reconstitute some schools, meaning to close them and then reopen with new staff members.

Other addenda to the contract seem trivial, including those that modify teachers’ workdays to permit them to attend in-service activities--sometimes after the fact.

The large number of amendments underscores the inflexibility of the core contract, the report argues: “Is there something wrong with a contract which must be routinely amended in the name of education reform?”

Teachers in Milwaukee currently are working under an expired contract. That document included new language to allow the administration greater authority to dismiss probationary teachers, the report says. In the past, such teachers had enjoyed nearly as much due process protection as tenured teachers, and the district had permitted virtually all of them to receive tenure.

The report quotes the district’s division of human resources as saying that the provision is expected to be used this school year.

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