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Time to Take on this Teachers Union By: Frederick M. Hess and Martin R. West
AEI.org | Thursday, April 06, 2006

About 1,300 city teachers responded last month to United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten's call for volunteers to join her in preparing for the next round of contract negotiations. In a letter to her members, Weingarten had urged, “Our goal is to use this bitter recent contract struggle, and the ratification debate that followed, to build a stronger, more unified and more militant union membership.”

That is a wakeup call to New Yorkers: The union will resist further reforms and the city and chancellor must vigorously push back.

While Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was justifiably pleased with incremental contract changes that secured extra instructional time, enabled principals to have teachers perform duties like hallway monitoring and added two days to the school year, New York City is well-positioned for bigger gains in the next go-round.

The city boasts a savvy negotiator in Klein, a strong mayor with firm control of the schools and a public convinced of the potential for school reform.

In a report released last week by Harvard University, we explain that these are among the conditions that may make it possible to undertake an essential overhaul of collective bargaining. (To see the report, visit

Despite the UFT's claims to be an advocate for students, hearings in 2003 showed how contract language protects jobs, limits accountability and safeguards privileges.

For instance, the contract stipulates that “excessed” teachers unable to find a position will be placed in vacancies in their district, on the basis of seniority, regardless of their previous performance. It requires that principals who don't have enough teachers volunteering for administrative duties may only assign duties on a rotating basis, must do it by reverse seniority and may not give a teacher administrative duties two years in a row.

Such rules impede sensible management. Change requires transparency, but the latest negotiations showed that management also has to be able and willing to stand firm.

In the next negotiation, New Yorkers should support the chancellor in efforts to pursue three significant changes:

1. Compensate teachers based on their performance and the demand for their skills

2. Further simplify and streamline the procedures for removing ineffective teachers from the schools

3. Remove work rules that make it harder for principals to monitor their teachers, ensure that routine administrative tasks are shared in a collegial fashion, or otherwise promote a professional culture.

Too often, administrators who try to lead boldly fail to receive the public backing they need. The result is timid leadership. As one ex-school board member said, “Too often school boards and superintendents complain that they cannot do something because of the teachers' union contract. Often what they were complaining was restricted wasn't actually prohibited ... but might cause some political difficulties or raise some public issues.”

It is not the job of Weingarten to change this.

Rather, the Klein-Bloomberg team has to start taking full advantage of contract provisions while laying the groundwork now for an ambitious effort to recast the contract this fall. And parents and voters must reject the belief that labor unrest is always a sign of leadership failure.

Overhauling the teachers contract will be a bruising struggle--one that will succeed only if the community commits to seeing it through.

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Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of economic policy studies at AEI. Martin R. West is a research fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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