A bizarre spectacle unfolded in the Senate HELP Committee last week. One day north of the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, heads of both major teachers unions argued that it’s ok to spend less on the education of children from low-income families than on their more advantaged peers.
What would happen if school districts gave high-poverty schools the same dollars per-pupil as they now give other schools?
AFT President Randi Weingarten says: “A lot. Right now, principals have a number of teachers they can hire based on positions, rather than a dollar amount they can spend. We don’t want a teacher’s salary and benefits to keep him or her from getting hired, just like we don’t want a teacher’s salary and benefits to force him or her to be transferred.”
Does anyone think investing less in poor kids will ever close the achievement gap?
-Senator Michael Bennet, Senate HELP hearing, 5/18/16
First off, many principals don’t get to “hire” anyone, particularly principals in high-poverty urban schools. Those principals typically get teachers assigned to them. A few districts have mutual consent policies, usually despite union opposition, where principals and teachers decide together about what would be the best fit for students. The word “student” appeared twice in Weingarten’s testimony. One of those mentions was her citation of the “Every Student Succeeds Act.”
The central problem here is that when it comes to staffing, the union wants seniority (a word that does not appear anywhere in Weingarten’s testimony) to drive just about every decision made by a school district. It’s a great arrangement if you’re a teacher with a lot of years in the system. For everyone else – entry-level and novice teachers, students, principals – it more or less sucks.
If you’re a new teacher, you get the toughest assignments even though, more likely than not, it’s your first time in front of a classroom. Are you a first-year teacher who wants extra time for professional development and establishing supportive relationships with your peers? Too bad, that wasn’t a big priority the last time your union negotiated your collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
If you’re a student in a high-poverty school, you get teachers learning on the job. Need a college prep class in math or science that your school can’t offer because no one can teach it? Sorry, your school doesn’t offer pay differentials to compete with the private sector in those fields.
If you’re a principal, you’re being held accountable for results from a team you didn’t pick whose members don’t typically stay long enough for you to optimize their collective talents. Want to offer great teachers who’ve been with you a year or two a pay incentive to stay rather than transfer? Sorry, your hands are tied.
NEA commits to address barriers in collective bargaining agreements by requesting that every local NEA affiliate enter into a compact or memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its local school district to waive any contract language that prohibits staffing high-needs schools with great teachers.
– NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Written Testimony, House Education and Labor Committee, 9/30/09. Emphasis appears in original.
Union leaders are aware of the equity problems caused by CBA’s. In testimony before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee in September 2009, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel stated: “NEA commits to address barriers in collective bargaining agreements by requesting that every local NEA affiliate enter into a compact or memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its local school district to waive any contract language that prohibits staffing high-needs schools with great teachers.” There is no evidence, however, that the NEA ever did any such thing and there was not even a remote reference to anything resembling Van Roekel’s promise in current President Lily Eskelen-Garcia’s testimony last week.
There are instances where local union chapters have agreed to changes to CBA’s that help equalize the distribution of great teachers, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of the time, teachers unions portray any effort to change CBA’s that incorporate factors other than seniority into human capital decisions as an assault on unionism. The frequency and forcefulness of such accusations, however, belies union practices in other fields including those, such as nursing, that are in some instances represented by the same unions that represent teachers. In a forthcoming paper, Education Reform Now will examine some of those practices.
Union leaders say they want to elevate the teaching profession. We wholeheartedly share that goal and are involved in collaborative efforts with them to achieve it. In order for that vision to be fully realized, however, we need an honest discussion about the profession’s responsibility to all students, particularly those in hard-to-staff schools, and a willingness to overhaul current policies that drive resource inequities. Last week’s hearing shows we still have a long ways to go.
Essential reading on this topic:
Kevin Carey – Why G.O.P. and Teachers Are Uniting to Stop Obama Effort to Help Poor Schools. The New York Times.
Jonathan Chait – Obama Wants to Give Poor Schools More Money. Guess Who’s Blocking Him. New York Magazine.
Marguerite Roza – The Sunlight Effect: More Equitable Spending on Its Way Regardless of Rulemaking. Brookings.