The harsh glare of state accountability systems has brought to public attention the expansive collective-bargaining agreements that local school boards negotiate with their employees. Big-city school superintendents such as New York City's Joel Klein and Philadelphia's Paul Vallas have decried the agreements under which they have labored. In this forum Linda Kaboolian says that collective bargaining is here to stay, but offers ways to make it more educationally productive; Howard Fuller and George Mitchell lament the impediments that collective bargaining has imposed on the learning process and call for more transparency; and Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, wonders if the system isn't "too broke to fix."
The case for collaboration
How can we measure the effects of collective bargaining on the education of our children? Shall we look to student outcomes? Joe A. Stone of the University of Oregon says that average students do better in classrooms with unionized teachers, but less able and more able students do not. Or should we look to the economic effects? Stone says that collective bargaining increases the cost of wages and fringe benefits, but not by much. And Frederick Hess (in the American School Board Journal) tells us that the old chestnut about restrictive work rules limiting administrators' initiatives to improve student achievement turns out to be exaggerated; it seems to be as much a story about the differences between what administrators choose to do under the terms of the contract as what they can do. Dale Ballou of Vanderbilt agrees, arguing that administrators have more discretion than is commonly thought, though they fail to take advantage of it.
Despite this lack of empirical clarity, I'm sure many administrators and school board members feel that it would be much easier to reform public education if teacher unions would just go away. In the age of accountability, if the benefits of collective bargaining to students are not both significant and measurable, we might wonder if it is time to restrict or prohibit it.
The fantasy of union-free school districts, however, like many fantasies, rests on false premises: on the one hand a stereotype that union contracts stand in the way of education reform, and on the other, an administrators' paradise where labor markets and managerial discretion are unbridled and collective action by teachers is unknown.
Whatever ambiguity might shroud past and current effects of collective bargaining, the future is more certain: collective bargaining and unionization aren't going to go away, and education reform wouldn't be better off if they did.
Collective Bargaining Isn't Going Away
Teacher unions and collective bargaining are here to stay, not simply because of the political clout that unions carry among elected officials or because the courts have determined that the Constitution protects union organization, but because teachers want the benefits of union membership. Eighty percent of K-12 teachers belong to a union. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of the private sector is unionized, the lowest percentage of unionized employees among advanced industrial nations. At the same time, our country has the most restrictive laws on unionization, exempting many employees, prohibiting compulsory membership, and barring many forms of collective action (that are allowed in the European Union, for example). Public education has, by every measure, the highest density of membership and coverage by collective bargaining of any industry, public or private. Even in states where employees are covered by right to work laws that weaken unions or where other public employees cannot organize or bargain, teachers have won collective bargaining rights through local ordinances and executive orders. …