In Medford they derailed a community service program for high school students. In Concord they watered down a rigorous training program for new teachers. And in countless other districts across the state, they have blocked innovative ideas at the proposal stage, forced administrators to fill vacancies with unqualified staff, and refused to allow the extension of the school day by a mere 10 minutes without extra pay.

The teachers unions. Is there a stronger advocate for the status quo in public education today? More than local school committees, superintendents, or even principals, the teachers unions wield vast power over the education of the state’s one million school children. For all the talk of “ed reform” in recent years, critics say one crucial fact has not changed: Teachers unions are still the most potent force in Massachusetts public schools – and rarely to the benefit of students.

School administrators from wealthy suburbs, working-class towns, and distressed cities complain they cannot make a move without consulting the teachers union in their community. Almost anything a superintendent or principal wants to do or change in a school has to be negotiated with the union and written into the contract first. The range of issues the unions control by virtue of the state’s collective bargaining law is extensive, and some say, frightening. It’s not just basic hours and wages but a long list of working conditions. It’s the length of class periods within the school day, the number of students allowed in each class, whether new programs get implemented and in what form, how staff vacancies are filled, whether teachers must know in advance when they are going to be evaluated, how much time teachers spend on professional development, and what professional development activities will count. A principal cannot even require teachers to attend faculty meetings unless the frequency and length of the sessions are spelled out in the negotiated contract.

The list is so long that some administrators wonder what is left for them to decide. On the rare occasion a superintendent or principal tries something new without first securing union approval, the union usually intervenes and demands that the plan be dissected at the bargaining table. By the time the two sides reach an agreement – sometimes more than a year later – the end result can barely resemble the original proposal. To many administrators, this process is fundamentally flawed. While they face mounting pressure under the state’s education reform plan to improve student performance, they say they do not have the authority to do what needs to be done.

“Teachers unions are the greatest obstacle to education reform we have.”

“I absolutely believe…that [teachers] unions are the greatest obstacle to education reform we have,” declared one superintendent, who asked not to be named for fear of riling the local union. “And I am a union person. I really believe that unions have done great things for workers. But I am just appalled at the kinds of positions they have taken around ed reform.”

“Most of the contracts that exist right now are far too restrictive,” agreed Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “In most cases, it does not allow you to do what intellectually you know needs to be done. We should be able to go in [when we see a problem]…and basically change it tomorrow. We can’t do that.”

Union leaders at the state and local levels insist that the collective bargaining process–and the contracts it produces–are a plus for education. Schools run best when teachers help make decisions, they say, and students are the ultimate beneficiaries. But uneasy with their obstructionist image, some Massachusetts locals have been abandoning adversarial positions of the past and adopting a more collegial approach to dealings with school management. They are trying out new, more collaborative methods of negotiations and agreeing to flexible contract provisions that would have been unheard of 10 years ago. No matter what their individual style, however, it seems clear that most Massachusetts teachers unions share a desire for one thing: an even bigger role in decision making.

This tug-of-war between labor and management has been a longstanding feature of the state’s public schools. But critics say it’s time for a change. They soon will have a chance to make their case. The debate over what administrators deserve to decide and what is appropriate for collective bargaining is expected to come to a head this year as legislators consider a dramatic proposal for changing the rules: State Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr., the influential chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on education, has filed a bill that would gut the collective bargaining rights of teachers and turn the reins over to superintendents and principals.

Taking Hostages

Some of the school superintendents and school committee lawyers contacted for this story laughed when asked if they had any problems with teachers unions or felt restricted by teachers’ contracts. Where to begin? they wondered.

Despite strong views on the subject, however, many administrators refused to be quoted, saying they were afraid that any critical comments would come back to haunt them. This explanation from one superintendent who asked not to be named was typical: “The current [union] leadership is very hostile, and I don’t want to make them more hostile. It’s really tricky; people are so sensitive. They’re really up in arms about this Hal Lane bill. There’s a real poisoned atmosphere right now around all this collective bargaining. If I thought my going out on a limb would help change things, I would do it. But I don’t think that would happen.”

Medford Superintendent Roy Belson was one of the few who was willing to speak frankly for the record. And the story he told illustrates the kind of reaction several of his counterparts in other districts say they often get to good ideas.

“It shouldn’ just be about protecting people’s jobs,” says Boston Latin Academy Headmaster Maria Garcia-Aaronson.

In 1997 the Medford school committee approved a new program for the high school that would meld student community service projects into the curriculum – part of a popular educational trend known as “community service learning.” Each student would be required to complete a certain number of hours of service each year. The idea was not only to get teens more involved in their city, but to have them learn a few things along the way. The way Superintendent Belson envisioned it, the faculty would create community service projects tied to their coursework. A social studies class could volunteer at the polls on election day, for example, or a science class could test the water in the Mystic River. Students would research their subjects and do a final report, such as writing an article for the local paper. Belson considered the request the equivalent of “a homework assignment.” But the teachers found it “too demanding,” he says. They called it a change in working conditions that had to be negotiated. And that was the end of that.

Since teachers refused to take on the extra work, Belson could not set up the program the way he thought it would have the most educational value. The high school does have a community service program today, but it is separate from the classroom. Students must perform 15 hours of community service each year, doing things like volunteering at hospitals or cleaning up parks. Teachers do not have to participate, and about half of those who help out get paid extra. “It has a very different slant to it,” Belson says. “So if you believe in community service learning, as opposed to just community service…that went by the boards….Instead of something that’s ingrained in the fabric of the schools, it has to be made ad hoc.”

Medford Teachers Association President John Fitzgerald says the request was unfair; the superintendent was asking a lot more of teachers than creating “a homework assignment.” Teachers already are strapped just managing their course loads; they don’t have time to take on extra work, especially arranging student activities outside the building, he says. And if they do, they deserve to be paid for it. “I hate to sound mercenary about this, but in any industry if you’re asking someone to do more, they’re going to get compensated for it,” says Fitzgerald, who has taught biology in Medford for 29 years. Teachers were worried they could get sued if students got hurt on the way to, or at, their community service assignments, he says. Fitzgerald also expressed doubts about the true goals of the program: “To be honest with you, I think it was a whole kind of public relations thing they were trying to do – at the teachers’ expense.”

The coordinator of the current community service program, Jay Griffin, is a history teacher who happens to be a former member of the union’s executive board. He says the program would have worked if each teacher had been willing to help students complete just a few hours of their total service requirement, and it would have been “pretty effortless.” But the plan was a victim of its unfortunate timing. “I just wish it was introduced in a non-contract [negotiation] year, because I think it would have been an easier sell,” says Griffin, who is not paid for his work on the program. “With any kind of change, there’s always resistance.” He says he can understand that many teachers were feeling fed up with all of the new demands placed on them under the state’s education reform plan and decided it was time to stand up for themselves. But he added, “I just wish more people would see it as [a valuable learning experience for students] rather than as an extra [teaching] activity.” Only about 20 of the school’s approximately 100 teachers are involved, he estimates.

“If you’re going to hold us accountable, you’ve got to give us the ability to make decisions.”

Superintendent Belson is one of many school administrators who told CommonWealth the state’s collective bargaining law is too broad, and the resulting contracts too restrictive. “Every time we try to do something, we end up having to pay for it, or it is, at best, a compromise of what we needed to do,” Belson says. “If you’re going to hold us accountable [for student performance], you’ve got to give us the ability to make decisions.” Many of the programs he proposes would take about “one-tenth the time” to implement if they did not have to be negotiated at the bargaining table, he added. “When it starts to get into the middle of how the schools are actually run and operated on a daily basis…it can make almost any proposal hostage to money or other compensation proposals,” he says. “There needs to be legitimate avenues for input, but at some point…you’ve got to be able to say to people this is something we have to work around, this is going to be part of our world.”

Working Conditions

A different sort of conflict in Concord shows the potential for problems even in a school district where labor and management say they otherwise have enjoyed smooth relations for years. The friction began a few years ago when then-Superintendent Tom Scott came up with an idea for a three-year, three-step orientation program for new teachers. He wanted to put rookies through a year of mentoring, a course on teaching techniques, and an anti-racism seminar while they were still considered “probationary” employees. The idea was to provide training and support at the time new teachers needed it most–and to give administrators the opportunity to scrutinize their progress while it was still fairly easy to fire any who were not up to par.

The union did not intervene immediately, but after a year or two it balked. Susan Curtin, a middle school social studies teacher and president of the Concord Teachers Association, says the program was having the opposite effect than was intended. New teachers already overwhelmed with their basic responsibilities were complaining that the added coursework was making it more difficult to prepare quality lessons, correct papers, and generally do a good job. “This was killing those teachers. With everything else they had to do, that was too much,” Curtin says. “It was affecting morale.” So the CTA filed a grievance and got a legal opinion from its statewide parent organization, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, that the program constituted a change in working conditions and must be bargained.

Unlike some of his colleagues in other districts who have given up after fierce union opposition, Scott continued to pursue his plan. He brought the idea to the bargaining table, where it eventually became part of the 1997-2000 contract. But the “Professional Orientation Program” in the agreement ended up different from the “Teacher Induction Program” Scott originally proposed. The union succeeded in making several changes, most significantly, the timing of the coursework. While the original was to be completed in a teacher’s first three years, the duration of their “probation,” the modified version allowed faculty to finish in five. Teachers now hook up with a mentor their first year, take the teaching techniques course their third year, and the anti-racism course by the end of their fifth. The union also won the right to have teachers earn credits for their coursework that move them up the salary scale.

“Working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. They can’t be separated in our minds.”

Curtin, who has taught in Concord for 30 years, says the story is a good example of a teachers association “expressing its concerns about how to make a program successful,” for the students as well as the staff. “We believe that working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” she says. “The two can’t be separated in our minds.”

Scott, who retired from Concord at the end of last school year to become executive director of EDCO, an education collaborative in Brookline, believes the revised program turned out to be effective. But he says: “It wasn’t something that by our design would have been the best way to do it.” At some point during negotiations, he says he realized, “It just wasn’t going to happen without our accepting [the union’s] point of view.” Every time administrators want teachers to do something new, he says, “You have to make some determination…How much is it worth to you?”

That kind of calculus raced through the minds of administrators throughout the state as they tried to figure out how their districts would meet the mandate for a longer school day spelled out in the 1993 Education Reform Act. The so-called “time and learning” rules require schools to schedule each elementary student for 900 hours of instructional time a year and secondary students for 990 hours. Some districts needed to add just a few extra minutes to the six- or seven-hour day most teachers were scheduled to work. But according to superintendents and school committee lawyers, even a little extra time meant union demands for a proportional increase in pay.

“Some of the teachers unions acted as though they had taxi meters on their heads,” says attorney Mary Jo Hollender, who has represented school committees in labor negotiations since the 1970s. “If they had to come to school five minutes earlier, the taxi meter was on and they wanted to be paid for every extra minute.” Attorney Mike Long, who represents the statewide superintendents’ association and about a dozen individual school districts, says those negotiations were “very protracted, very difficult, and ultimately expensive.” In many cases, administrators opted for shaving time off lunch, homeroom, and passing between classes, so they would not have to increase teacher salaries. Recently similar disputes have been arising as administrators ask teachers to spend more time on curriculum planning and professional development.

Seniority Rules

Another contentious contract issue that has affected many school systems, especially large, urban districts, is the requirement for seniority-based staff transfers. While few, if any, schools still allow the most senior teachers to fill vacancies regardless of individual qualifications, critics say seniority plays an all too significant role in these decisions. “I don’t remember seeing a contract anywhere that doesn’t have seniority as a factor in a transfer,” Long says. “Most rely heavily on it.” Practically speaking, he adds, if seniority is mentioned at all in a contract, and a teacher who is passed over files a grievance, “most arbitrators will put a very heavy burden on management to justify why the more senior teacher was not transferred.”

In the Boston public schools, before principals can look outside the system for someone to fill an opening, they must make sure that no one currently on the payroll wants the job. The result is that principals have little or no control over who works in their building, says Robert Sperber, a professor of educational administration at Boston University and a member of the education reform group Critical Friends. “Making that one change in the contract [eliminating seniority in hiring and transfers] would do more to improve the Boston public schools than any other reform,” says Sperber, a former Brookline superintendent who drafted a Critical Friends proposal to revamp the human resource operation of the Boston school system. “You know from the business world…that the business would go bankrupt if the CEO had basically limited control over who works in that enterprise.”

“We’ve got one of the most progressive contracts in the country,” says Boston Teachers Union President Edward J. Doherty

Although seniority is less important than it used to be, the Boston contract still considers seniority a key factor when it comes to involuntary transfers, where teachers are forced out of a position because enrollment dips in their building. Maria Garcia-Aaronson, headmaster of the coveted exam school Boston Latin Academy, is one administrator who says the system poses serious problems. In her eight years at Boston Latin, she says the rules have forced her to accept at least three staff members who were simply unqualified for their positions and more who were mediocre at best.

Also disturbing to Garcia-Aaronson is the voluntary transfer process, in which teachers look for a new job by their own choice. Here seniority does not have to be considered when filling vacancies, but principals must consider current Boston teachers before they can look outside the system. Garcia-Aaronson says this means she often has to settle for “average” teachers from the district while sitting on a pile of resumes from eager, energetic, and highly skilled new college graduates.

Boston Teachers Union President Edward J. Doherty defends the contract. The voluntary transfer rules are fair, he says; seniority is not required to play any role at all. When faced with involuntary transfers, staff members still deserve jobs in the school system, he adds. Each individual selects three positions from a list of vacancies in his or her program area and is guaranteed one of them. The most senior employee selects first, the second most senior next, and so on. “They have to be placed, from the union’s point of view. These are people who may be 20- or 30-year employees of the school system,” Doherty says. Critics of the policy “don’t have any regard for the rights of an individual employee,” he adds. “They would go back to the day when an individual principal could hire anyone they want, whether it was a friend or a relative or someone the mayor told them to hire….That would be extraordinarily dangerous to public education.”

Garcia-Aaronson acknowledges the transfer procedures have been improved from the days when strict seniority ruled, but says they have not been improved enough. “I understand [the union’s position], but when you’re talking about excellence in teaching and learning and everything we’re supposed to be about, it’s really kind of sad when you have to settle for mediocrity,” she says. “Just because someone has dedicated x number of years to a profession doesn’t mean they should be guaranteed that position.” She added that she has no objection to hiring people from the school department when they are high-quality candidates. “And there are many excellent candidates,” she says. “It’s just when there isn’t one….No one should be allowed to hide behind an issue of seniority….It shouldn’t just be about protecting people’s jobs. The bottom line is we have to do what’s best for the children.”

The Way They Were

In the years before Massachusetts allowed teachers to band together to negotiate employment contracts, school administrators could – and often did – hire whomever they wanted. Some also did other things that today would be considered managerial abuse. But once collective bargaining became law, the way some veteran educators remember it, school administrations never stood a chance against the unions.

Ed Tynan was a 29-year-old superintendent in the tiny Southeastern Massachusetts town of Acushnet when teachers won the right to bargain in 1965. While most teachers associations immediately were able to call on the considerable resources of their national parent group, the National Education Association, for advice on negotiating their first contracts, school committees were at a disadvantage, Tynan says. The NEA had already been distributing “model” contracts across the country, as public employee unionization swept the land, and most Massachusetts locals brought them to their first sessions at the bargaining table. With the help of staff negotiators from their state parent group, the MTA, they were able to get key provisions incorporated into their first contracts – including many basics that remain today, such as generous sick leave policies and detailed grievance procedures.

The unions “beat everyone to the starting gate,” says Tynan, who was a superintendent for 30 years, the last 25 in Barnstable, before his recent retirement. “The school committees felt confident they were going to jostle around like the old days. Very few employed negotiators. Very few went in with counter-proposals….I think they spent more time in resentment than in preparation.”

“The initial contracts favored the employee, and it’s been a catch-up game ever since.”

That was a big mistake, says attorney Stephen Finnegan, who represents the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and has represented school districts ranging from small towns to large cities for 20 years. “The most important contract, anyone will tell you, is the first one,” he says. “The initial contracts really in general favored the employee, and as a result, it’s been a catch-up game ever since.”

Teachers were winning similar gains across the United States. Most early education contracts treated teachers more like factory workers, with strictly regimented schedules and duties, than like white-collar professionals. According to Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has studied teachers’ contracts nationally, the early agreements closely mirrored those in industry, limiting work hours, outlining standardized pay scales, and establishing seniority-based layoffs.

These kinds of provisions were necessary to curb the administrative excesses of the past, Johnson says. Before collective bargaining, many teachers had to put up with superintendents and principals playing favorites, evaluating their work unfairly, and making important decisions unilaterally.

As Ed Tynan remembers it, teachers were “subject to the whims and fancies” of whoever came along. The introduction of collective bargaining “was positive [for] bringing some dignity to the workplace relative to salaries, and at least taking some of the capricious attitude away from some of the school district managers,” Tynan says, noting that before collective bargaining the Legislature had to keep passing minimum salaries to help teachers keep up with the cost of living. But as time went on, he added, “The power base shifted rapidly, to the detriment of young people.”

By the late 1970s, union gains in the U.S. came to a virtual stop, according to Johnson. Teachers and administrators both eventually began to realize that the industrial model was outliving its usefulness. In addition to the benefits it brought, it also led to lower expectations for teachers, rule-driven management, and uninspired school practices, she says. As a result, around the mid-1980s, a small number of districts nationally began to experiment with so-called “reform bargaining,” which took a less industrial, less adversarial, more collaborative approach to negotiations. A mix of the old and the new kinds of contracts can be found across the country today.

TURNing Over a New Leaf

The Boston Teachers Union is considered a national leader in efforts to re-think union strategy – something that has attracted little attention in its home state. The BTU is a founding member of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a group of 22 local unions across the country. Members have grown tired of the negative image of teachers unions – that they block reforms and sandbag good programs – and also of change attempted without union input, says co-founder Wellford “Buzz” Wilms, a professor of education at UCLA. He describes TURN as “a group of forward-looking unionists who share the vision that the union really needs to be reformed itself.” The goal is to share ideas and spread the word about reform-minded successes, such as working peer review programs into contracts.

“This couldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” Wilms says. But with so many new pressures on school districts to improve performance and give taxpayers their money’s worth, exacerbated by the threats of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, “it etches new roles for the parties.”

The Boston union started experimenting with reforms in the late 1980s, even before the creation of TURN. The changes are evident in comparing older contracts with the current one. Susan Moore Johnson, the Harvard education professor, singles out such differences in a study to be published this year. (Johnson declined to identify any of the districts in her study because of a confidentiality agreement. But the contract language of the district she called “East Port” is identical to Boston’s.) Where previous “East Port” contracts “typified most people’s notion of excessively restrictive union agreements,” the current contract calls for many significant reforms, the study notes. Among them are the creation of a mentor teacher program, a professional development center, and procedures for increased faculty input into curriculum, budget, and staffing decisions through “school site councils.” The agreement even allows the councils to waive certain union or school committee rules, such as the length of the school day, class size, and a teacher’s non-teaching duties, provided enough staff, parents, and the principal consent.

Perhaps most dramatic has been the union’s acceptance of the creation of 10 experimental schools known as “pilot schools,” which operate free of most union and school committee work rules. As with charter schools, the hope is that free of those constraints, they will serve as models for innovative new programs. While charter schools (which are authorized by the state) have no unions at all, pilot school teachers do retain some ties to the union. They remain union members and receive at least the minimum salaries and benefits provided in the contract.

“This union…has been extraordinarily flexible,” asserts Edward Doherty, the Boston Teachers Union president. “We’ve got one of the most progressive contracts in the country.” Wilms, of TURN, agrees: “Some of the things done in Boston should be emulated elsewhere….It’s the sentiment [of trust between the parties] that’s expressed in Boston that we hope will go to other locals.”

Collaborating With the Enemy

“Some unions are trying a less adversarial approach to bargaining.”

While Boston is the only Masschusetts union in TURN, it is not the only local that has loosened up lately.

A number of unions have voted for more progressive contract provisions in recent years. For example, the Springfield Education Association, which represents approximately 2,400 teachers and other staff, agreed a few years ago to add an hour and 15 minutes of work at the end of one school day each week. Without students present, they can use the time for professional development, curriculum discussions, and planning lessons with colleagues. That’s something administrators from other districts would like to see their own teachers do. And in Brookline, the union agreed in the current contract to flexible scheduling. Now some teachers start earlier and some later, allowing the school to be open an extra hour each day. Several other districts have tried but so far failed to win similar changes.

In some cases, such as Boston and Brookline, new kinds of contracts have been the result of new kinds of bargaining. One of the most significant developments in labor-management relations in public education over the last decade has been experimentation with a form of negotiations called “collaborative bargaining,” or “interest-based bargaining.” Rooted in the 1981 book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Harvard Law School professor Roger Fisher, the idea is to forego the traditional adversarial model that grew out of industrial unions in favor of a more cooperative approach. Gone is the practice of two teams sitting on opposite sides of a table, hiding their true interests, and making outlandish proposals. Instead the negotiators figure out what are the problems that each side wants to solve, or the goals they want to reach, and they work together to come up with solutions to address everyone’s concerns. It’s about getting people “bought into the idea that war is not the only metaphor we can use when negotiating contracts,” explains Irma Tyler-Wood of CMI/The Negotiation Group, a consulting firm created by Fisher. “Education issues are complex. They can’t always be solved by ‘I win and you lose.’ ”

The Belmont schools, according to Superintendent Peter Holland, are a “textbook case” of the technique’s success. Belmont Education Association President Robert Antonellis agrees: “It’s the best thing we ever did.” Four years ago, teachers walked off the job in a seven-day strike over raises after more than a year of negotiations failed to produce a new contract. High school students, who did not choose sides, were so upset they picketed in front of the building calling for talks to continue so they could get back to learning. “It was the worst scenario that could have been imagined,” Antonellis says. And afterwards “there was a lot of mistrust on both sides of the table, and we both knew we couldn’t continue that.” Using collaborative bargaining last year, they settled a new contract in just a few months, and before the expiration of the old one, for the first time since the early 1980s.

It is notable that the union and the school committee had tried collaborative bargaining in the months leading up to the 1995 strike. But, as they realized later, they had not had enough training to understand the process and both fell victim to the same old feelings of mistrust. When it came time to negotiate the first post-strike contract in 1998, they decided to try again–but this time with extensive training from CMI’s Concord Group. They opted not to return to the school committee’s conference room where they had hashed out contracts for years, instead making a fresh start at the neutral territory of the new Chenery Middle School community room. There they sat at tables in a U-shaped design, labor representatives intermingled with management. They met up to three times a week, often well into the night, from March through June.

Their three-year agreement represents the new trust the parties developed. Most important, they agreed on a new teacher evaluation procedure that has gone smoothly so far, Antonellis says. They also formed committees to give teachers a stronger voice in school and system decisions. For its part, the union has not filed a formal grievance in more than a year. If someone has a complaint, Antonellis simply calls the person and they figure out how to solve the problem informally. That’s in sharp contrast to past practice. One year, the union filed about 20 grievances, he says. As for Superintendent Holland, who did not participate in the negotiations but sees the effects, he says he is thrilled with the new spirit of cooperation. “We’re a better system,” he says. “It’s by far the best labor relations situation since I’ve been here, and that goes back 11 years.”

More than a few skeptics remain. Plenty of superintendents and school district lawyers, not to mention some union representatives, think collaborative bargaining is a waste of time and money. CMI/The Negotiation Group, for example, charges $27,900 for a three-day training session of up to 30 people. It costs more if the firm is asked to facilitate negotiations. And participants acknowledge it can take much longer than traditional collective bargaining. Plus, some critics say it can only work in wealthy districts that can afford to give the money the unions want. Susan Moore Johnson, the Harvard education professor, says there is no guarantee that collaborative bargaining will produce reform-oriented contracts.

But the practice is spreading, with significant encouragement coming from the Massachusetts Teachers Association itself, the parent group for most locals in the state. Ten MTA staff members are qualified to train school and union negotiating teams in the collaborative process, and some serve as facilitators at the bargaining table. When they started in 1995, there were about five MTA school systems involved. Today there are about 60 to 70 districts ranging from Lexington in suburban Boston to Longmeadow in Western Massachusetts that have used collaborative bargaining techniques, says Michael Walker-Jones, the MTA’s director of affiliate services. “The demand is really starting to increase,” he says. MTA President Stephen Gorrie says the organization is encouraging locals to try it out, though he knows it’s not for everyone. “It has the potential to do a lot of good in most places,” Gorrie says.

The End of the World as They Know It?

But as is often the case in Massachusetts, the reforms are spotty, and perhaps not where they are needed most. Mounting frustration has some people calling for the state to mandate a new approach to collective bargaining in public education – by changing the law that governs it.

State Rep. Hal Lane, D-Holden, who was a high school principal for 20 years, says collective bargaining is “too slow.” He calls his bill “a mid-course modification.” The proposal would limit the topics subject to collective bargaining to little more than wages and hours. It would exempt all kinds of issues now negotiated as working conditions and allow superintendents and principals to decide them on their own, as “managerial rights.”

The list includes many of the hot-button topics that administrators now complain they have little control over, such as scheduling time within the school day, approving professional development plans, and assigning teachers without regard to seniority rights. “Those issues always should have been management rights,” Lane says. “We’ve gone too far the other way.” The bill also would permit principals to refuse the transfer of any teacher into their buildings, eliminate pre-announced evaluation visits, make two unsatisfactory evaluations of a teacher grounds for dismissal, and extend the amount of time it takes to reach “professional teacher” status–when it becomes difficult to fire someone–from three years to five.

But Lane did not stop there. Trying to find some middle ground, he put a little something for everyone in his plan. Now no one is entirely pleased. Administrators say the bill undermines the very authority it purports to provide by allowing each school to create a “faculty senate” to decide issues such as scheduling, curriculum, evaluation procedures, professional development, and “school reform” plans. All it would take is getting the principal, school council, and majority of the faculty to agree to set one up. Decisions would require a majority vote of the faculty and approval by the principal. But if the principal disagrees, the faculty can override the denial by a two-thirds vote. The principal would hold the ultimate trump card though, as some see it, with the power to disband the senate at the end of any year.

The proposal has prompted vociferous opposition from teachers unions across the state. But Lane insists his bill is not anti-teacher; in fact, he calls it “teacher-friendly” because of the faculty senate component. “I’m not taking power away from teachers, I’m giving them power, a lot of power. More than they have in the collective bargaining law,” he says. “The collective bargaining law gives the power to a small group of people that go into a room with bargainers from the school committee and sort it out with relative confidentiality until they come out the other end with a contract.”

His intent is not to say “that collective bargaining is innately evil,” Lane adds. Rather, he says, in this day and age when the state is demanding individual school accountability, his goal is to foster schools run truly in collaboration between administrators and staff. The idea for the bill grew out of a series of focus groups he held with various education constituencies to discuss teacher quality over the past two years. After they got done blaming each other for the problems, the single most common comment was a plea for collaboration in decision making. With a faculty senate, decisions would be made “by the people closest to the problem, in a much shorter period of time,” Lane says. Yet he acknowledges he made the senate piece optional because he did not think every faculty would want to bother.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has launched a campaign against Lane’s bill, declaring it “turning back the clock” on all the rights teachers have won over the years. “The vast majority of our members view it as going back to before we achieved everything we need to make this a strong profession,” says MTA President Stephen Gorrie. A faculty senate is “not even close to being an equal tradeoff” for the loss of collective bargaining rights, he adds.

“It’s very hard to think that things teachers have won and achieved over the years could be flushed down the drain.”

What most union critics do not understand, Gorrie says, is that the schools with the strongest educational programs are the ones with collaborative decision making. The problem is that teachers can’t trust all administrators to be collaborative – and not to be arbitrary and capricious – without forcing them to do it through collective bargaining, he says. “It’s very hard to think that things that have been so hard won and achieved over the years could be flushed down the drain because of a shift in balance,” he says.

In the end, critics say, the fact is that teachers unions are going to act like unions first and foremost. That is how they see their role. “The teachers unions won’t like this, but we have to view teachers unions as what they are. They’re not advocates for children. They’re not advocates for education. They’re advocates for teachers as employees. That’s what they do. And it tends to make a lot of us very angry,” says former state representative Mark Roosevelt, who co-authored the state’s education reform law. “Now, to the degree that their perception of what’s good for teachers coincides with what’s good for children and education, then they are advocates for children and education.” But when they don’t coincide, he adds, the teachers’ interests as employees prevail.

Most employees in private industry probably would love to have as much control over their working conditions as teachers do. But there, management has a stronger hand–at least more so than in public education. Attorney Duane Batista, who has represented management clients, including schools, for 34 years for the Boston firm of Nutter, McClennen & Fish, says the element of competition makes all the difference. “The [private industry] union recognizes…that if they push too hard or are too unreasonable, particularly in terms of working conditions and getting the job done, the company’s going to go out of business, or the company’s going to move to Taiwan, or the company’s going to do any number of things.”

“It’s a monopoly, so unions have no reason to be anything but unreasonable.”

But there is no such constraint in public schools, says Batista, a former member of the Wellesley school committee. “Nobody’s going to move [any of the] schools to Taiwan or just shut them down. It’s a monopoly situation, so there’s no self-interest reason for the unions and the teachers to be anything but as unreasonable as they can to try to get as much as they can.”