Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Where “Reform” is a Four-Letter Word

A few recent stories from around the country are not making teachers unions look like friends of school reform. The Kentucky Education Association, for example, managed to kill a legislative proposal to give small pay increases to science and math teachers, despite the chronic shortages in those fields. The Lexington Herald-Leader noted in an editorial that the plan “could have been a first step in building a teacher pay system that rewards teachers for extra work or extraordinary knowledge.”

The New Hampshire Valley News tells another such story in its editorial today lamenting the resignation of a local reform-minded principal. The editors wrote:

The Lebanon Education Association was quick to file a formal grievance when the principal proposed the routine use of student evaluations – to be used by teachers for professional growth, not by supervisors for measuring competency. Many professionals from a range of disciplines agree to evaluations, including ones from their clients. Students at Hanover High hand in class evaluations that even supervisors see. Why are Lebanon’s teachers so threatened by students’ critiques?… The union president, Deborah Kennedy, was quoted as saying, “We end up looking absolutely awful in some of these accounts, that we’re not willing to change, and that’s not true and it’s not fair.” If they are truly willing to change, to improve the school environment for the sake of the students and parents they serve, then they ought to relax a little and realize the importance of procedural flexibility and professional responsibility. The formality of the collective bargaining agreement shouldn’t stifle innovation and incentives for academic excellence – a fact that school board members are likely to think long and hard about when negotiating a new contract with the teachers union next year.

But not everything is bad news. Against the wishes of his supporters at United Teachers Los Angeles, L.A. school board member Jon Lauritzen reversed his previous vote against the expansion of Green Dot charter schools into an area that’s been horribly underserved by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Green Dot’s schools are unionized — but not by the UTLA — with a union contract that includes several quality-first policies: “teachers have explicit say in school policy and curriculum; no tenure or seniority preference; a professional work day rather than defined minutes; and flexibility to adjust the contract in critical areas over time.” It can’t help that Green Dot teachers get paid more, too.

Lauritzen received almost all of his re-election money from the UTLA, but it appears that he fears losing his runoff election more than he fears the wrath of the teachers union. “Profiles in Courage” this is not. Don’t expect the UTLA, however, to suddenly throw its weight behind Lauritzen’s reform-minded challenger, Tamar Galatzan: as LA Weekly reports, “UTLA vice president Joshua Pechthalt has attacked Galatzan’s camp for backing charter schools.”

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