Invisible Ink in Teacher Contracts: State Policy Trumps Collective Bargaining

By Cohen, Emily; Walsh, Kate | Education Next, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Invisible Ink in Teacher Contracts: State Policy Trumps Collective Bargaining


Cohen, Emily, Walsh, Kate, Education Next


When the Cleveland, Ohio, school board had to make radical cuts in its budget last spring, it was forced to eliminate 540 teaching jobs. There wasn't a whole lot of mystery about which teachers among Cleveland's 3,500-member teaching force would be the ones to lose their jobs.

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The state's hard-and-fast seniority rule--last hired, first fired--provided Cleveland school officials with little wiggle room for deciding which teachers had to go. Among the first were a number of teachers who had been handpicked to staff the district's 10 new "innovation" schools. Ann Mullin, senior program officer for education at Cleveland's George Gund Foundation, told the city's Plain Dealer, "There's something wrong when a state law forces removal of teachers without regard to their effectiveness in the classroom."

Across the country, many cash-strapped districts fretting over likely layoffs are eyeing seniority rules as they hammer out new contracts. To the surprise of some district superintendents, contract negotiations are not likely to offer much relief. In fact, when it comes to seniority rules, and many other core aspects of teachers' employment, the contract is not the problem. State law is. In Ohio's case, state law dictates that teachers on continuing contracts and those with greater seniority should have preference, language that is effectively emulated in 14 other states in the country. While teacher contracts may flesh out the details of school rules and rights of teachers, states are in the driver's seat. Local control--although it is still brandished when expedient--is today more myth than reality, at least when it comes to matters involving teachers.

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The contract certainly still plays a big role in determining a teacher's pay, work schedule, and benefits, but the power behind the policies with the most impact on teacher quality, such as tenure and performance assessment, lies with states. That power has steadily increased over the decades, especially in recent years, as federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have pushed states to assume more authority over education.

Special Interest

What hest explains increasing legislative involvement in teacher governance is the rise of teachers unions. The public-sector labor movement took hold in the second half of the 20th century when, in the face of poor working conditions and low wages, unions began lobbying for collective bargaining rights. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order that allowed federal workers to bargain collectively, and one by one states followed, affording unions substantial bargaining power by the mid-1970s.

As unions matured, their leaders realized that it is more efficient to lobby state legislatures on particular workplace provisions than to negotiate the conditions into hundreds of individual contracts. And once the stipulations are passed, there is generally no clock ticking on a law's expiration as there would be if the provision were part of a collective bargaining agreement.

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For a number of reasons, the unions have had considerable success in passing teacher-friendly legislation in spite of frequent opposition from school districts in a state or even the department of education. Because union interests are narrowly defined (unlike, for instance, those of the business community), teachers unions can go after an issue with laserlike focus, and they are quite adept at drawing on the public's generally supportive view of teachers. Unions are highly effective lobbyists in part because, unlike many advocacy groups, they are membership organizations (for the nation's largest profession). Whereas other groups typically rely on grants and donations, unions collect a steady stream of income from member dues and are flush with discretionary funds, which can be used to build campaign war chests and contribute to lobbying efforts (see "The Long Reach of Teachers Unions," features, page 24).

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