Don't blame unions, blame the legislature

Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining: Why Key Issues are Not Addressed
National Council on Teacher Quality
July 2008

Who is to blame for the ironclad and sometimes silly rules under which most of our nation's public school teachers work? Not collective-bargaining contracts, says the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) in "Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining: Why Key Issues are Not Addressed." The teacher contract "is by no means the monolithic authority that many presume it to be." Instead, NCTQ argues in this new paper, it is the state that dictates much of how the teaching profession is governed.

The NCTQ came to this conclusion during the process of creating its TR3 (Teacher Rules, Roles, and Rights) website, which it launched in 2007 (see here). TR3 houses a searchable database of all state laws and regulations pertaining to teachers and the contract provisions of 100 school districts (including Columbus and Cleveland). Invisible Ink explains what you won't find in these local teacher contracts and why.

The state's role starts with deciding whether teachers may collectively bargain and, if so, what issues are allowed on the table. Terminology is often vague and seemingly all-encompassing. In Ohio, for example, public-sector unions may negotiate "all matters pertaining to wages, hours, or terms and other conditions of employment and the continuation, modification, or deletion of an existing provision of a collective-bargaining agreement..." (see here). Differences in interpretation abound between teacher unions and district leadership and states, again, enter the picture to settle these debates via courts, attorneys general, and labor-relations boards.

The state continues to influence teacher work policies with issue-specific legislation and regulations. NCTQ cites a recent example from New York City where the district wanted to amend the process for awarding teacher tenure to include student-performance data. The union objected but could not file a grievance as New York state law does not include tenure in collective bargaining. Instead, the union sought-and won-a provision in the state budget bill that made it illegal to consider job performance as a factor in the teacher- tenure process. Incredibly, now no public school in the Empire State can take into consideration how well a teacher does his job in deciding whether to give him or her tenure.

State laws, unlike contracts, don't expire and savvy union lobbyists find it more efficient to codify a provision rather than negotiate it with hundreds of local school districts every several years. As a result, state laws and policies governing teacher-employment issues abound. All states dictate the length of time at which teachers are eligible for tenure (Ohio and 32 other states say three years). Most states have rules about how often teachers may be evaluated and just 13 states require annual evaluations of tenured teachers (Ohio isn't one of them). Half of all states mandate a limited class size (25 kids per teacher in the Buckeye State).

The NCTQ makes a strong case that such statewide governance, "removes decision-making from the ground level, increasing the likelihood that students' needs are not sufficiently considered." Read the report here.

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