Dealing with Disingenuous Teachers Unions: There Are No Shortcuts

After its big referendum victory last week, Ohio teachers union vice president Bill Leibensperger said “There has always been room to talk. That’s what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious issues.” He voiced an argument made by union supporters through the fight over Senate Bill 5 (and the similar battle in Wisconsin over public sector union rights): All employees want is the right to bargain; they are more than willing to make concessions during these difficult times.

And to be sure, you can find examples of unions—of police, firefighters, even teachers—who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Consider the survey of big-city school district leaders published by the National Council on Teacher Quality a few weeks ago. When asked how they “reduced their budget gaps” over the past two years, fewer than half had eliminated or limited cost of living raises for teachers, only 30 percent cut automatic step increases, and just 13 percent trimmed benefits. In other words, in the midst of the Great Recession and historic unemployment, teachers in the vast majority of urban districts continued to get raises and generous healthcare and retirement benefits. So what exactly are their unions conceding? In fact, more districts cut the number of working days for teachers than addressed the spiraling cost of health benefits. Whose interests are we putting first?

I can hear the response from union supporters now: But school boards and administrators signed off on these policies. They are the management; if they aren’t driving a hard enough bargain, take up your beef with them.

And that’s where we get to the logic of collective bargaining reform. Yes, school boards should drive a hard bargain with unions, but they don’t, because their members are so often elected with the support of those very same unions. As a result, the teachers end up negotiating with themselves. What Ohio legislators (and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker) were trying to do was to rein in the ability of school boards to give away the store. These efforts were about curbing local control run amuck. If school boards aren’t willing (or able) to play hardball, we’ll do it for them.

Clearly, this argument either wasn’t made well in Ohio or didn’t get through to the electorate. And to be sure, it’s hard in a sound bite to explain how collective bargaining rights lead to irresponsible priorities, bad policy, and unaffordable spending.

So where do reformers go from here? One option is to be even more radical: To go after not just collective bargaining but school boards too. Make all of the key decisions at the state level. Negotiate with the teachers around a statewide approach to pay and benefits, the whole kit and caboodle. (Marc Tucker’s “New Commission” made such a proposal several years ago.) That’s an attractive long-term strategy, but voters—averse to big, sudden changes—will need some time to get used to the idea.

The other approach—call it the “no shortcuts” plan—is to roll up our sleeves and engage in the fight for political control of local school boards. Reformers are already doing this in places like Denver. It’s not easy, and previous efforts in cities such as Los Angeles were short-lived. The unions have innumerable ways to topple leaders who don’t hew to their demands. And to make an impact, we’d probably have to engage in hundreds of school districts around the country. That would require an operation that would make Michelle Rhee’s shop look puny.

Curbing collective bargain rights, promoting mayoral control, creating an alternative charter school system—all of these are efforts to deal with the fact of union-dominated school boards. They are still worth pursuing, in my view. But they are only part of the solution. If we want to win the fight for the more immediate future, we’re going to need to take on the unions directly, and take over the school boards. Shall we get started?

-Mike Petrilli

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