Collective bargaining and education policy

Considerable attention has recently focused on a bill (AB 2160) working its way through the California legislature that would expand the scope of collective bargaining beyond wages and working conditions to include matters of education policy such as curriculum and textbooks. The bill has the strong support of the California Teachers Association, the state's largest teacher union. The bill's sponsor, LA Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, argues that teachers have inadequate input on matters of education policy and sees the bill as a remedy. Similar, although less sweeping, legislation is being considered in Tennessee and Maryland.

While few would quarrel with the notion that teachers should be involved in decisions about curriculum and textbooks, the relevant public policy question is whether the collective bargaining process is the right venue for such involvement. I don't believe that teachers will gain the input they want from this bill. And not only is there no evidence that expanding the domain of collective bargaining in this way would improve the performance of public schools, it is likely to raise costs and slow the process of school reform.

If education policy is placed in the domain of collective bargaining, teacher unions would have rights that no other education stakeholders currently enjoy. If a group of parents or members of the local business community approach the local school district with concerns about curriculum, textbooks, or education policy, school administrators are under no obligation to reach a legally binding, contractual settlement with these groups.

In states such as California with collective bargaining laws, the local teacher union is the exclusive bargaining agent for all teachers in the district. The school district is required by law to "bargain in good faith" with the union over issues that are in the scope of bargaining. A district that fails to do so can find itself fined or otherwise sanctioned by the state employment relations commission. Moreover, on topics covered by the scope of bargaining, the school district must negotiate only with the teacher union. It cannot meet with an alternative teacher organization or groups of teachers. To do so would violate state labor law.

If this bill becomes law, would a school's union representative then need to be present if a principal wants to eat lunch with that school's science teachers to discuss textbooks, lab procedures and curriculum? Would a teacher who favors phonics over whole language methods be obliged to communicate this judgment to her principal only though the union representative? Skeptics may dismiss such scenarios as far-fetched. However, anyone familiar with collective bargaining knows that the process commonly results in a rigid, highly structured, and cumbersome method of dialogue and decision-making.

Bargaining in good faith means that there is give and take in negotiations. Suppose a school district wants to require teachers to stay after school for an additional 20 minutes. It cannot implement the change without first negotiating an agreement with the union. This has two important consequences. The first is delay. Bargaining over a change may take weeks, months, even years. In addition, the district must be willing to give something in return (typically more pay) in order to get the union to agree to the change.

Placing education policy within the scope of bargaining means that school districts will need to negotiate all curricular and instructional changes with the union, and the union will be able to extract benefits for its members whenever a district desires a change in the curriculum. If the district sought to change from one math textbook to another, the union could, if it chose, extract some type of compensation from the district for the change. In effect, the union would be given the ability to levy a tax on any change in education policy. This union-imposed tax would raise the cost of school reform and thus slow its implementation.

Unions might exact greater compensation for policies that cut into their membership. Suppose, for example, that the district found that direct instruction methods for teaching a particular subject were superior to small group methods. Further suppose that the use of direct instruction permitted the district to raise class size from, say, 23 to 26 students and still yield gains in student performance. The union will not be neutral on this matter since its dues income is tied to the number of teachers employed, not to student achievement gains. Thus, the union is likely to favor small classes and individualized or small group instruction regardless of the educational or fiscal merits of alternatives.

It should also be noted that the phrase "teacher union" is somewhat misleading. In many states, affiliates of the NEA and AFT also represent non-professional employees of school districts such as teacher aides, janitors, secretaries, bus drivers, etc. If it were found that replacing teacher aides with computers would raise student achievement and lower costs, local affiliates of the NEA and AFT would have a duty to represent the workers whose jobs are at stake, not to lower costs or boost student achievement.

This demarcation between union and management interests is clearly understood in private sector collective bargaining. No one expects the United Auto Workers to represent the interests of auto consumers or auto company shareholders in negotiations. Questions of product mix, design, marketing, and development are strictly areas of management prerogative in private sector labor relations. This is not to say that auto company managers don't maintain a dialogue with employees about these matters, but the collective bargaining process is not the right venue for such discussions.

Even if teacher unions were to adopt an altruistic position and not use their new power under AB 2160 to extract pecuniary gains, the mere fact that education policy is now subject to collective bargaining would still raise costs for schools, since more time would be taken by the collective bargaining process itself, which would mean more paid release time for teacher union representatives, more management time consumed in bargaining, more grievances, more fact-finding, more legal fees, etc. Along with these direct resource costs would come the opportunity costs of school reforms not implemented. As one California school administrator put it, "The broader the scope of collective bargaining, the greater the opportunity for deadlock and delay."

And once they reach an agreement on a curricular matter, the parties are then locked into a contract for several years. What if, during the term of a contract, evidence emerges that better textbooks or a different curriculum is available? Must school administrators wait until the next contract is ready to be negotiated to begin discussing a change? Imagine if doctors were bound by a collective bargaining agreement to continue with an inferior drug or procedure? Surely that would be grounds for a malpractice suit.

For all its costs, proponents might still argue that this bill is necessary in order to provide teachers with more input into the education process. Yet the experience of private school teachers shows that it is possible for teachers to have considerable professional input into education policy decisions without collective bargaining. Dale Ballou and I analyzed public and private school teacher survey responses from the 1987-88 and 1990-91 federal Schools and Staffing Surveys (http://www.missouri.edu/~econ4mp/mp2.pdf). On every dimension of data collected in these surveys-curriculum, student assignments and discipline, cooperative relations with colleagues, treatment like a professional-private school teachers reported significantly more favorable conditions than public school teachers. Yet collective bargaining is virtually nonexistent in private schools. Moreover, preliminary data from teachers in charter schools (which are primarily non-union) suggests a similar collaborative pattern.

A more promising way to enhance teacher professionalism is to break up these large bureaucracies and create a more competitive market for K-12 education services. In this way, teaching would become more like every other profession. What other profession deploys its members in "bargaining units" with thousands of members and attempts to regulate professional communication through collective bargaining? In private schools and more entrepreneurial parts of public education (like charter and magnet schools), education services are often delivered by teams of teachers with principals or head teachers serving as team leaders. This team production model is common in nearly every other professional workplace as well. Relations among members of these teams are cooperative and based on professional norms and expertise, not the adversarial and litigious collective bargaining model.

Assemblywoman Goldberg is no doubt correct in her assessment that many Los Angeles teachers are not treated like professionals. That problem deserves solving. But not by placing education policy into the collective bargaining arena.

Michael Podgursky is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri and co-author of the recent Fordham report, "Personnel Policy in Charter Schools."

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