Union Blues

Teachers' unions find their most cherished protections challenged by school reform

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Last spring in Chicago, a group of teachers, principals, and members of the city’s new local school councils met to brainstorm about ways to further decentralize the school system. They ended up proposing that teachers be hired and given annual contracts by individual schools instead of by the district. Teachers whose contracts were not renewed by one school, they suggested, could have their names returned to a citywide eligibility list maintained by the central office.

“The desire was to make it clear that the real employer of the teachers was the school,” says Paul Hill, a social scientist at the RAND Corp. who sat in on the discussions. But the proposal was immediately denounced by the Chicago Teachers Union as the equivalent of having “600 superintendents.”

“That would do more to destroy the profession in this city than anything else I’ve heard of,” says Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the union. “No one in their right mind would walk into a situation that you could be asked to walk out of in a year.”

Incidents like this one in Chicago are becoming common occurrences in many big-city districts. As more systems move to give individual schools greater autonomy, teachers’ unions are having to fight off challenges to some of collective bargaining’s most cherished protections and procedures. In particular, the push to decentralize big-city school systems is calling into question personnel policies that were created when teachers were regarded as interchangeable laborers in a factory-like system.

Recent attempts to give schools greater control over their budgets, staffs, and programs in such cities as Chicago, Boston, and Detroit have run headlong into the desires of unions to protect tenure and seniority policies, centralized hiring, and common work rules that have traditionally been key features of teaching contracts.

And, at the same time that reformers are pushing for greater authority at the school site, the American Federation of Teachers, which once led the charge for schools to govern themselves, is downplaying school-based management as its primary reform strategy. Without clear curriculum goals, better assessments, and incentives for students and teachers, such initiatives often flounder, AFT president Albert Shanker now says. “We’re convinced that school-based management, in and of itself, does not lead anywhere,” he explains.

Union leaders acknowledge that school autonomy calls traditional labor practices into question. Some union presidents, such as John Elliott, who heads the Detroit Federation of Teachers, insist that teachers should not and do not want to take on the responsibility of managing schools. Others, such as Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, contend that unions could give up some of their traditional roles and become “service centers” for their members. “It would mean a different kind of union,” Urbanski says, “not lesser, just different.”

Researchers have found that the most successful schools are those in which teachers, principals, and students feel a sense of ownership, have created a distinctive culture, and have the freedom to go about achieving their goals. Many reformers are now suggesting that principals and teachers be given greater control over who works in their buildings as a way to build this kind of school culture.

But in many big-city districts, where such devolution of authority may seem most critical, teachers are hired and assigned to jobs in a centralized way that allows individual schools little, if any, leeway in choosing and managing their own faculty. These procedures, many experts now believe, eventually could undermine efforts across the nation to give schools more autonomy. “If teachers continue to be assigned on the basis of seniority or other general criteria,” says a RAND report on decentralization, “staff assignment could become a serious barrier to the continuation of healthy site-managed schools.”

Decentralization efforts are under way in a number of urban school districts. Unlike the movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that resulted in the creation of community school boards in New York City and subdistrict offices in Detroit, the focus of the current activity is on devolving power and authority to schools themselves.

The best example is Chicago, where local school councils that include administrators and teachers along with parents and community members now hire and fire school principals and make critical decisions about a school’s budget and programs. School reformers in other cities, while advocating a variety of approaches, also believe that the best strategy for addressing the problems that plague their schools lies with the people who work in them.

In Los Angeles, a diverse civic coalition has drafted a plan for moving decision-making and budget authority to the schools. In Detroit, the school board has been locked in a struggle with the teachers’ union over a proposal to “empower” schools to run their own affairs. In Philadelphia, comprehensive high schools are being broken down into smaller units that are viewed as a step toward eventually decentralizing the district. And in Boston, the school committee has proposed creating deregulated “demonstration schools” that would be free to hire and manage their own staffs.

Whether these efforts will be successful is unclear. Because the historical trend has been toward more, not less, centralization, these efforts face formidable obstacles. The issue of what to decentralize and what to maintain as the province of the central office is not a simple one.

“People are totally unrealistic about how complicated these organizations are, how difficult it is to bring about change, and how long it takes,” says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of administration, planning, and social policy at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

But the unmistakable trend toward breaking down the centralized administration of big districts has important implications for teachers’ unions. As districts move decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, grading and attendance policies, and the like down to schools, observes Charles Kerchner, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School in California and editor of a new book on urban school reform, they “tear big hunks out of the notion of the existing bureaucracy.”

“We are talking about departures from industrial-style organizations that are strongly hierarchical, relatively formalized, and relatively differentiated between levels, where teachers are real different than managers,” he says. “Once you depart from that mode of operation, the existing mode of organizing teachers doesn’t work very well.”

The “logical consequence” of school-based management, write the RAND researchers in their study, would be a “districtwide teacher labor market in which teachers and schools choose one another on the basis of affinity to school mission and culture.”

How to create such a system— while still protecting teachers’ rights and guarding against inequity—is a subject of intense debate. Many union leaders insist that, for a number of reasons, it cannot and should not be done. For one thing, Shanker argues, school-site hiring would create imbalances among experienced and inexperienced teachers.

“In New York City, if you didn’t have a central-assignment and central-transfer plan, then teachers would be distributed according to the racial composition of the school and the socioeconomic status,” he says. “But it’s also true right now that when New York City teachers are centrally hired and sent to the school that probably about 30 percent of the teachers quit because they do not want to work at the school that they are sent to. So this is not a simple issue.”

In addition to concerns about equity, union leaders point out that districts have to guard against undue political pressures in teacher hiring. “In the 1950s,” recalls Jack Steinberg, director of education issues for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, “we had ward schools, where a teacher had to go to a ward leader, pay the ward leader, and work for that person on election day [to get a job]. That’s not so far back in our history.”

And the notion of schools choosing teachers on the basis of their adherence to a certain philosophy or approach to education also runs counter to the egalitarian norms that influence teachers’ relationships with one another.

In Philadelphia, some of the teachers who have created “charter” schools within comprehensive high schools have expressed an interest in hiring the other teachers who will work with them. The teachers’ union opposes the idea, arguing that it would create divisions in the ranks. “The thought of only having people in your school who agree with your philosophy is one that we reject,” Steinberg says, “because the whole purpose of restructuring is to give an opportunity [for] ideas to come out and be discussed.”

In addition to personnel policies, the centralized work rules contained in teaching contracts have come under fire in a number of places. Critics argue that it no longer makes sense to negotiate a specific set of regulations that apply to all teachers because schools are being encouraged to find the practices that best suit their communities and students.

Steven Wilson, co-director of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Boston and author of a book about reforming the Boston schools, writes that the detailed contract “overpowers” anyone who wants to undertake change. “The teachers’ union demeans its own membership by insisting that everything about the workplace be prescribed,” he writes, “from the length of lunch breaks, to the length and schedule of the workday, to the maximum number of minutes per week that teachers are permitted to meet with one another.”

But union leaders point out that work rules have grown up over time to protect teachers from poor managers. “Most are in there because of some real or perceived abuse,” says Edward McElroy, secretary-treasurer of the AFT.

Frustration with the Boston procedures is one reason the city’s school committee wants to create demonstration schools, says Robert Culver, senior vice president and treasurer of Northeastern University and a member of the Boston committee. “We’ve got to focus on outcomes,” he says, “as opposed to processes.”

Wilson, in his book Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston, proposes that the teachers’ union in that city “serve as a placement agency” for teachers contracting individually with schools. “The Boston Teachers Union could come to protect the right of teachers to enter into such contracts,” he writes, “rather than constrain it through collective-bargaining agreements that limit autonomy and choice for both teachers and principals.”

The book, which has influenced the school committee in its negotiations with the union, outlines an “entrepreneurial model” that would allow any teacher or principal in Boston to come up with a plan for creating a school. These plans would be reviewed by several “sponsoring councils,” whose members had been approved by the superintendent. The councils would decide which schools the system should “invest in.”

The new schools would receive funds based solely on the number of students they enrolled, with special-needs students carrying greater amounts of money. But the schools would have great flexibility in spending that money. Edward Doherty, president of the Boston Teachers Union, summarized the proposal as: “Pick a principal, and let him operate in a union-free environment with no work rules.” The new, mayorally-appointed school committee, Doherty charged, is “out to kill the union.”

Paul Hill, the RAND researcher, believes the proposal to give schools their money on a per-pupil basis is the key to creating a labor market for teachers. Most school systems, he points out, now give schools resources but not their own budgets to manage. Although the cost of teachers’ salaries in a big-city high school might be $4 million, the school might only have about $85,000 to spend on its own. If schools were given lump sums based on their enrollment and told to live within their means, Hill says, a district could create a labor market. Schools with concentrations of highly paid teachers would find themselves over budget, while those with lesser-paid teachers would have a surplus, Hill says.

The union, he suggests, could then become a broker, recommending teachers to schools. “In the old days, and still in a lot of trades,” he says, “that’s the brokerage role the union plays.”

In general, says McElroy of the AFT, a teacher labor market could drive down salaries. Schools would replace retiring senior teachers with lower-salaried teachers. Principals in other schools would transfer senior teachers to free up some salary money for other uses. “Then, it becomes a business decision,” he says, “not an educational one.”

William Ayers, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says he believes that city’s teachers’ union is in “deep crisis, deep pain” about the implications of school reform. “This puts them in a situation of chaos and confusion, not because they’re sitting on their hands,” he says, “but because who knows how this will turn out? Teachers hiring teachers is the least of it. `Where’s my contract going to come from if the end of a big-city school system is also the end of negotiations and unionism as we’ve known it?’ “

In the end, says John Kotsakis, an assistant to the president of the Chicago teachers’ union, the union represents the only stability many urban districts have. “Future contracts will reflect flexibility for local-site initiatives more and more,” Kotsakis predicts. “Wouldn’t it be much better to have the union driving the change, being significant partners in it, accepting accountability, and identifying with success or failure, than having them simply sitting on the side?”

Vol. 04, Issue 05, Pages 9-11

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